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The Quill Adventure System or The Quill, as it was known, was written by Graeme Yeandle and initially published for the ZX Spectrum by Gilsoft International Ltd in 1983. The Quill was the first in the "Gilsoft family" of adventure systems which includes the PAW, the SWAN, and DAAD. Over 800 games have been produced using The Quill.
Gilsoft's Quill was available for ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, BBC Micro & Acorn Electron, Sinclair QL, and Oric 1/Atmos. An Atari 800/XL version was developed but may not have been released. Localised versions were published by Norace in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, all on one disc/tape.
In the USA, the tool was sold, under license, as AdventureWriter by the publisher CodeWriter who included their own graphics system. CodeWriter "grey imported" a French language version to Europe. CodeWriter's (US & French) version of the system was available for Commodore 64, Atari 800 and XL series computers with 48K, Apple II (II, II+, IIc) / Franklin Ace 1000, and IBM-PC (MS-DOS). The C64 and Apple/Franklin version had support for graphics.
The Quill System
Graeme Yeandle, inspired by Ken Reed's seminal article on a system for text adventures in the August 1980 issue of Practical Computing, produced the game Time-Line; which became an early release of Welsh software publishers Gilsoft. Graeme's database-driven code was subsequently used by Gilsoft's Tim Gilberts to produce another adventure, Diamond Trail. Gilsoft encouraged Graeme to develop his database & interpreter into a fully-formed authoring system and The Quill was born. The first commercial release using The Quill system itself was Graeme's own Magic Castle.
Creation of a Quilled adventure involves using the main program to edit an adventure database. Through the database editor the user can amend the game's vocabulary, enter message text, as well as edit the main properties of their game.
The text for each location can be inputted and relationships between rooms defined. Objects can be assigned with text, properties, associated words, and given a starting location.
The event and status table allow the user to input game code based around "CondActs" - simple conditions and actions. Each turn of the game compares the player's two word input with the entries of the event table; processing the entry if the words match.
The Quill allows the author to instantly test their adventure from within the editor itself. Once the user is happy with their work they can export a finished standalone game file which includes the standard interpreter. The Quill is not needed to play a finished adventure and authors were free to release their games commercially, without having to pay a fee or royalties to Gilsoft. This undoubtedly contributed to the utility's immediate success and popularity with both amateur and professional users.
There were several releases of The Quill system for each platform, with major upgrades to the initial ZX Spectrum release to incorporate many of the features that had been gradually added in subsequent microcomputer versions.
Most releases of the Quill have serial numbers beginning with A. The serial numbers of non-English versions start with a B. The Spectrum version of the Quill was released in two distinct versions: Serial A and Serial C.
Although subject to individual platform limitations, such as memory and screen size, in general games produced on particular microcomputer version of The Quill can be implemented on another platform. In the 1980s this would've involved owning multiple editions of the software and also re-entering all the database on the new target system.
Most Recent Version: C05 (cassette)
The early Serial A version of the Spectrum Quill had a basic level of CondActs (compared to the later versions that appeared on other platforms) and other restrictions, such as not being able to customise the system messages. For example, Serial A on the Spectrum did not have the advanced object-related CondActs (AUTOD, AUTOG, AUTOW, AUTOR) or word assignment for items, so authors had to manually code GET/DROP responses for each object.
Version C for the Spectrum was a major upgrade and is highly recommended as the version to use, particularly as it integrates with the other optional support programs. Version C was available both as an upgrade from Gilsoft, with a supplementary booklet detailing the major changes, and also in an edition with a fully revised manual. A converter program was provided for Spectrum users to convert a serial A database to a serial C one.
Most Recent Version: A04 (disk)
The Quill was available for the Amstrad CPC on tape and disk.
Most Recent Version: A06 / A06.4WD (disk) & B02 (disk)
The Quill was available for the Commodore 64 on tape and disk.
BBC Micro/Acorn Electron
Most Recent Version: A03 (disk)
Gilsoft commissioned a third-party Neil Fleming-Smith to make the BBC/Electron port of The Quill. As a result, it is the edition that is most different to all the other original Gilsoft-generated ones. The flag system is defined differently to the other editions and there is no distinction between system messages and standard messages. This version does, however, include built-in text compression and support for external machine-code routines.
Oric 1 / Atmos
Most Recent Version: A00 (cassette)
The Oric version was programmed by Tim Gilberts. It's probably the rarest and least-used version of The Quill due to the lack of success of the Oric platform. A unique feature of the Oric version was its support for double-height text.
The QL version of The Quill (not to be confused with QL word-process of the same name) was written by Huw H. Powell in 1986. It was perhaps the most advanced version of Gilsoft's original system; with several enhancements that would soon make an appearance in the PAW, such as a much greater number of flags and an expanded bank of user-editable system messages.
Although selling the software under a different name, this "US version of the Quill" is virtually identical to Gilsoft's; particularly the release for C64. CodeWriter did supply their own, re-written manual. The C64 and Apple/Franklin version of AdventureWriter also had support for graphics through CodeWriter's own system.
The IBM PC (MS-DOS version) is notable for having support for both 40 and 80 column text.
Various support programs were created over the years which added extra features. These utilities included The Press, The Patch and The Illustrator.
The Illustrator, by Tim Gilberts, was available for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC platforms.
It allowed authors to add graphics to their text adventures. Graphics were vector/line-and-fill style. A separate editor program was used to design the graphics and combine them with the completed adventure database.
C64 graphic modes included full screen picture (hi-res, 24 lines), full screen (with press any key message), split-screen picture & text, and scrolling text mode.
Spectrum & Amstrad CPC users were initially limited to full screen pictures using the Illustrator. Split screen modes were unlocked on the Spectrum via The Patch, and on the CPC via The Splitter. The C64 Illustrator also added RAMSAVE functionality to the system; as a result there are text-only C64 games that were produced using the Illustrator.
The Patch, by Phil Wade, allowed Illustrator split-screen pictures to be incorporated in Spectrum text adventures. This facility was controlled with flag 27 (as it was in the C64 Illustrator). The Patch also provided a collection of other special effects, routines and features by utilising flag 28 with the PAUSE command. A small routine was also provided which replaced the printer routine in the Illustrator with one that saved the screens out to tape.
Additions included: Split-screen pictures, sound effects, switching between two typefaces/character sets, screen wipe effect, dynamic object limit, super-quit and crash features, different key-click options, dynamic replacement of system message 1, and the addition of Ramsave/Ramload (memory save facilities).
The Press and The Expander
The Press and The Expander were written by Phil Wade for the ZX Spectrum Quill. The Press offered text compression and the Expander allowed larger text-only adventures beyond the usual top limit. By using both utilities, text-only adventures bigger than “40K” could be produced.
The Expander gives the user 6938 bytes extra on version C02 and 7338 bytes extra on version C05. The manual states that with good compression this could mean the equivalent of about 11K extra for an adventure.
As well as the main add-on programs, there were several other programs available from Gilsoft and third-party publishers.
Characters was a simple character designer for the ZX Spectrum supplied with 20 premade character sets. The font editor was created by Kevin Maddocks of Sigma-Soft, and the included fonts had been available previously as Sigma’s Character Set Collection.
The Splitter was an official Illustrator support program that allowed split screen graphics to be added to Quilled adventures on the Amstrad CPC and also gave authors additional options for how Illustrator pictures were displayed.
The Fix, Mini-Fix, The Fix+
Produced by Gerald Kellet of Kelsoft (who also made extensions for the GAC and PAWs), The Fix programs provided some interesting extra commands for Quill programmers on the Spectrum. By using a quirk in the editor, Kelsoft were able to add a series of pseudo-CondActs that were implemented using the OK action. Added features included four word parser support, multiple status table passes, forced vocabulary synonyms, and advanced flag calculations.
QUAID and The Replicator
Also produced by Kelsoft, the QUAID (“Quill Aid”) was a debugging tool for the Quill. The Replicator was a utility designed to assist in the duplication/publication of Quilled adventures.
GRAX was a picture definition language created by Spectrum programmer Bo Jangeborg which was later used in the mainstream releases of the graphics package The Artist and the arcade adventure game Fairlight. GRAX started life as an homemade add-on for the Quill that Bo created for his adventure-creating friends to use for releases on his Swedish label XCELLENT Software. The GRAX language enabled artists to squeeze pictures into a small amount of memory, allowing games such as Gize to add simple illustrations for every one of its 160-odd locations. GRAX, as an add-on for the Quill, did not get a wider commercial release.
Compatibility with later Gilsoft systems
The basic structure and CondAct language of The Quill adventure system was later incorporated into other "Gilsoft family" systems such as the PAW and DAAD. Games created for The Quill can be fairly easily adapted for these later systems but there are many non-trivial issues that porters need to make allowances for.
Games produced using the Quill can be played using an appropriate 8-bit computer emulator. The standard interpreter is part of the game file itself.
There is also the option to produce a z-code version, from a game snapshot, using the program unQuill. The Quill Adventure Guides site also offers an online interpreter.
Adventure players should exercise caution using third-party interpreters as they do not exactly replicate the game experience, especially if the author had used some of the support utilities (such as The Patch) to create their game.
Although The Quill only had a two-word parser, a special four-word version was created by Gilsoft for CRL to use in their Bugsy game; although the commercially released version does not seem to implement that feature. Support for four word inputs could be added to Spectrum games by the use of the third-party The Fix program that was marketed by Kelsoft.
Depending on the system they were developed on, games produced using The Quill can be dissembled and the database investigated using tools like unQuill, unPAWs, and the Quill Adventure Guides' reverse engineering tool.
The Inker is a prototype tool that can be used to extract graphics from a Spectrum unQuill file as SVG files. It is part of the 8-Bit Adventure Toolkit, which no longer seems to be in active development.
Commercial Adaptations & Modified Versions
In addition to the commercial games produced using the Quill, several games used the system as a prototyping/development tool (such as Dodgy Geezers and Terrormolinos). A related third-party engine, by Roger Taylor and James Byrne, was used to convert several Quilled games for commercial release and was subsequently used for new works; see Ashminster.
There were also games released using (often uncredited) heavily-modified versions of the Quill such as Rigel's Revenge and The Serf's Tale. That particular "hack" of the Quill, produced by Smart Egg, was dubbed "The Ballpoint".
The critically acclaimed, homegrown C64 game Time Thief by Don Macleod boasted that it was "the most technically advanced Quill-adventure ever written" with its custom text compression routine apparently offering a 50-60% reduction.
The Quill has been unofficially ported to other platforms. For example, in the early 2000s Zeljko Juric produced an enhanced version for Texas Instruments (TI) programmable graphical calculators. There was an unofficial ZX81 version in development back in 2009/2010 together with a Windows-based editor.
The Quill's impact on the UK microcomputer software scene was almost instantaneous; flooding the commercial and homegrown adventure market with adventure games of varying quality. The easy-of-use of the tool particularly appealed to those who had previously been turned-off by programming languages. As a result it influenced many other adventure systems that followed it and still remained a popular tool when more powerful utilities, such as GAC or PAW came along.
Adventure historians and commentators have traditionally underestimated The Quill's impact outside of Europe. However analysis of the archived games clearly shows that although it didn't have the same impact on the commercial market in North America as it enjoyed in the UK, it was actually popular in the public domain scene in the US, Canada, and Australia. Many Quilled (AdventureWriter) games produced for the C64 were distributed through bulletin boards and early "online" services.
The majority of this article has been derived from work by 8bitAG and has been used with permission.
- Graeme Yeandle's Site. (archived)
- Gilsoft official site.
- Games produced with The Quill, CASA's list of games produced (or ported) using The Quill.
- The Quill - at Wikipedia.
- 8bitAG - Quill articles and resources.
- Quill Adventure Guides - resources and tools for working with Quill databases.
- Gilsoft Adventure Systems An officially sanctioned repository of Gilsoft software, run by Stefan Vogt.
- The Quill documentation at Mocagh.
- CodeWriter documentation at Mocagh.
- AdventureWriter for Apple II.
- AdventureWriter for Atari 8-bit.
- AdventureWriter for C64.
- AdventureWriter for IBM PC (MS-DOS).
- The IF Archive - various Quill-related downloads on the IF archive.
- unQuill - for extracting Spectrum/CPC/C64 & BBC databases.
- unPAWS - for extracting Spectrum databases.
- The Digital Antiquarian writing about The Quill.
- Using the Quill: A Beginner's Guide by Debby Howard and Simon Avery.
- Adventure Coder Fanzine by Christopher Hester.
- Devweb's Atari Quill page - discussing the issues porting Quilled games to Atari 8-bit machines.
- Imagination's the only limit: 1 and 2 - Micro Adventurer Issue 3, January 1984.
- The Quill - CRASH Issue 4, May 1984.
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