David Nowotnik puts the new version of The Quill to the testThe Quill Adventure Writer | First Steps | Diagnosis
Mention Quill to any QL owner, and he or she will automatically think you are talking about the QL's word processor. So it is somewhat unfortunate that another product for the QL should have the same name. But "The Quill Adventure Writer" has developed such a good reputation on the Spectrum that software house Gilsoft must believe that this reputation will overcome any confusion on the QL.
The Quill is a machine code program which provides users with a framework for producing their own text-only adventure programs. It is menu-driven and quite easy to use. Using a logical approach and a little practice, anyone can produce an adventure game in a matter of a few hours.
The product is available in two price formats. At £22.95, The Quill is supplied with a printed manual and the programs on one disc (3.5" or 5.25") or two microdrives. Alternatively, customers can send £10.95 and supply their own magnetic media. In this form, the manual is supplied on one of the cartridges (or disc) as an ASCII file, but there is a three-sheet introduction to get you started.
The review copy was supplied on two microdrive cartridges, with the manual on cartridge. This manual can be loaded into a text editor (e.g. from Metacomco), although you will need a RAM expansion to squeeze it all in. A hard copy can be obtained by COPYing the file to a serial port connected to a printer.
An electronic manual of this sort is a very poor substitute for a proper manual. I COPYed the manual file to an RX80 printer. It failed to paginate correctly, and margins came out all wrong. The end result was something just about usable, but very untidy. And if you haven't got a printer, then you have nothing to refer to while learning to use the program. Still, Gilsoft do give you a choice of proper hard copy or the cheaper but nastier 'soft' copy...
The manual recommends using an EXEC command to start the adventure writer program; but there is a perfectly good BOOT program on the cartridge which does this for you.
In use, The Quill turned out to be quite impressive. The manual takes you step by step in writing a simple adventure with only six locations. And with that training, really complex adventures can be easily within the grasp of any adventure programmer.
The program depends upon an adventure 'database' being constructed. A basic database called 'start' is provided on the cartridge, and the first action in setting up any new adventure is to load this in. The sequence of actions is therefore something like this:
First, set the screen size (by adjusting the border), then permanent ink and paper colours. For each of the six locations, enter a 'location text'. This is the message which appears when you enter any new location. For example:
"I am in the Hall. The Kitchen is to the West and the Dining Room is to the North."
These texts can be inserted in a single colour, or mixture of colours. Word wrapping is not provided, so users have to be careful to avoid word splitting. But text can be amended as well as inserted in the database, and there is good protection system, which prevents you accidentally inserting new text to a location which already has one. During text entry, the cursor can be moved up and down, as well as right and left, for rapid editing. But the cursor had a tendency to disappear when moving it rapidly right to left.
Each location is assigned a location number; the next step in constructing the adventure is to link up locations, to give the 'Movement Table'. This is done through another selection from the main menu. It's quite logical. If from location number 5, you can move east to 6, west to 4, and north to 8 then you'd type in for location five:
Movements up, down and to the diagonal points of the compass are also possible. You can also give names to locations. If location 8 is "HALL", then this name can be added to the movement table, so, when playing the game, you can say "GO NORTH" or "GO TO HALL" and the computer will respond to both.
With all the location texts and movement data entered, it is possible to carry out a test of the database. Again from the main menu, a single keypress takes you into your basic adventure game. The database has an elementary vocabulary (to which you can add many more words), so you can take yourself around the locations; the computer will respond with the appropriate location messages, and tell you if it fails to understand a command, or if it cannot move in any one direction. And all you have had to do to get this far in constructing your game is enter some simple text and movement data.
In testing the game, the user is given a 'diagnostics' option. Supposedly, this provides extra information while running a test but in the review version, I found that requesting 'diagnostics' made no difference to the information presented on the screen.
Entering objects, and locating them is also very simple. New words can be added to the basic vocabulary provided; synonyms are easily identified; they just have the same word number in the vocabulary file. The text recognition routines are rather basic. They can recognise only up to two words, and only the first four letters of a word are significant.
Probably the most difficult item to understand is "the event table". Again, this is another item from the main menu, and it sets conditions to the computer's response to the player's commands. In a way, it can be likened to 'Archive'. You use some high level, quite specific keywords to instruct the computer how to respond to commands. A large part of the manual is devoted to explaining its complexity, and users may need to read this section a few times to grasp all the elements of this programming 'language'. A second manual file, useful for reference purposes, is available on one of the cartridges, once you have grasped all the concepts of the first manual.
As the whole process of programming your adventure could take several hours, SAVEing and LOADing your database are available options to give you a well deserved rest!
Gilsoft make no demand for royalty, so if you believe your adventure progam is good enough for sale, you are free to do so. Of course, your adventure will be text only. In response to competition, Gilsoft have produced 'add-ons' for the Spectrum version of The Quill to allow graphics to be added.
Gilsoft are developing an Illustrator upgrade for the QL version of The Quill; whether it ever reaches the market will depend on the demand for The Quill. Whatever the outcome of that development, budding adventure program writers could do well cutting their teeth on The Quill.