The history of the PAW

But… why so much ado about the Quill & the PAWS authoring packages?

You may consider both Gilsoft’s The Quill and The PAWS as mere software relics of the past, if at least you happen to know what they really are (or, rather, were). Or you may think that both sofware packages were useless and obscure utilities for the ZX Spectrum range of computers which deserve not too much attention nowadays…


What are text adventures?

Text adventures (a.k.a. interactive fiction) are computer games whose playing interface is entirely based in the use of words.

Unlike graphic adventures, first-person shooters, puzzles, arcades or any other computer entertainment software designed around the use of graphics, text adventures only provide interaction with the player by using words.

Instead of using hi-res, detailed graphics to display a game location, text adventures provide a text description of what a place is, what is seen around, who and/or what is present and what is happening.

Instead of using rendered graphics for characters and objects, text adventures provide a text description of who each character is, how does he look like, what he is doing at a given moment and how he interacts with the environment, with objects and with other characters.

Instead of using a mouse or a joystick to play the game, the player types commands using natural language words.

Events and happenings are reported to the player in due course using text messages.

By using words, the player (YOU) guides the main character throughout the game world, helping him (or her) overcome obstacles, solve problems, work out what is going on in the story, interact with other characters, discover new places and tasks to carry out and finally reach the end of the story whichever it may be.

While playing, the game engine will constantly update the text on the screen. The player is, in a way, reading a story that constructs (according to the behaviours designed by the programmer) and unfolds at runtime.

Why do people like text adventures?

Text adventures were invented at a time when computers rarely featured graphic capabilities. Using language was more of a circumstance rather than a choice. But the truth remains that, when used properly to stimulate a reader’s mind by conveying meanings, pictures, situations or feelings by means of words, language is a most powerful emotional booster that captivates the reader. This fact is connected with the functions of the right brain hemisphere but, to cut a long story short, let’s say that ‘s why people enjoy text adventuring as much as they enjoy reading conventional books. Text adventures provide, on top of the pleasure of reading, the added value of interactivity, recreation, fantasy and participation.

And what does all this stuff got to do with mortals like me? I am not any entrepeneur and I don’t publish text adventures commercially…

That’s why you should take a break and turn to the History tab of the menu, read what happened when the commercial market for text adventures started to fade away and the influence of both The Quill and The PAW on the creation of the worldwide text adventuring scene along with Inform and then return to this page.


You’re back? Ok. Then, read on.

The Infocom software (or its direct heir, Inform) did not use a sequential programming metaphor as The Quill (or The PAW later did). Instead, it used an object-oriented approach similar to that of C++ and many other conventional programming languages. The grammar of Inform is, in fact, hard to learn and to implement because a writer must understand first the abstraction of how a programming language works and then embed his adventure game in there. Too many (), [], {}, #, |, if, endif, else…

Simulate the creation of the world or, simply, write an interactive text adventure? or about database vs. object-oriented driven parsers

The original The Quill and The PAW (and similar contemporary authoring tools like Level 9 ACODE, The Biro, The GAC, ScottAdams…) were tiny applications designed to be used with home computers. They were comprised in only some 7k and 12k respectively. Given the little share of RAM memory available with the computers of the 80’s, writers tried their best to produce quality games using text compression routines and to a pretty good effect, but games were necessarily synthetic and relied too much on the reader’s/player’s abstraction capacity. Writers had to be able to imply much by writing just little. These adventure writing applications were designed to handle the adventure data as databases that could be managed by an ad-hoc, user-friendly language with a short and easy-to-learn grammar. Good games were produced nonetheless, as writers learned how to draw the best possible results by combining 500 text messages, 256 objects, 256 variables and not much more. The games produced efficiently relied on the concept of subtext and presuppositions to spare as much computer memory as possible.

The nature of the Inform (and the like TADS, Hugo, etc) authoring tool is so open-ended (you can have as many locations, objects, messages, attributes, things as you want; namely, an unlimited bunch of game elements) that certain immediate consequences have taken place over the years as to text adventures and interactive fiction:

  • the overwhelming catalog of functionalities provided by the object-oriented systems has misled writers into a paranoia of being able to simulate the world up to the farthest corner, putting aside the fact that, from a writer’s perspective, a text adventure or interactive fiction game is not a life simulator but just a bunch text lines printed on the screen in a certain order according to a specific text-mathematics rules.
  • instead of motivating writers to produce games, several communities (the spanish CAAD among them) have entered a spiral of paranoically devoting their energy to the production of game authoring tools and libraries, plug-ins and tools, more complex each time and packed with features that will hardly be ever used, paying little attention to authors and game writers in the meantime.
  • as a result, only few text games are being released since most of the capable programmers and creative writers are putting their time into something which is not writing games.
  • a writing adventure software not used to produce games is worth, exactly, nothing at all.

As limited or simple or restricted as the PAW and its replicants may be, the fact remains that writers still use them and release games today, even in the ZX Spectrum format. You can google or world-of-spectrum Josep Coletes Caubet and read about his Van Halen series, whose last installment has been recently released (in 2009).

It is your choice to use a database-driven authoring software like PAW or an object-oriented application like Inform. We acknowledge the beauty and the excellence of the Inform system, but just remember that you’re more bound to be able to finish and publish a game if the authoring tool you use builds some fences to delimitate your choices as writer. With Inform, you can define 6.900 locations or 3.000 objects for your game with 842 attributes (transparent, liquid, wooden, etc) each. But you would need years to assign values to all of them and still some more additional years to write the routines that should be able to handle them authomatically. After that, you should still start writing your game… With the original PAW or any of its replicants, you can write, programme and edit a full-length text adventure in as little as three or four months.

In a few months from now, we expect to release the PAW Monster Edition, a reincarnation of the original PAW with expanded, but not unlimited, capabilities. If you choose to use it as a writer, you will be able to write large, nice and wonderful text adventures within reasonable technical limits. Your won’t be able to simulate the world, but you need not to. For further information, you can visit the Projects page of this site.

Less resources available means more creativity to devise solutions.

About The Quill, The PAW and the english-speaking text adventure market

Before 1983, one of the most, if not the most, influential companies in the culture of interactive fiction and text adventures was Infocom. Their text adventures were always longer, better, nicer, with more text, more characters, more puzzles, more story. Their game writing application was the most powerful authoring tool and their commercially-sold game were top quality in design, story writing and length.


But as to amateur adventure writers, the story begins with The Quill (formally known as The Quill Adventure System, The Graphic Adventure Writer or just Adventure Writer).

“In 1982 I owned a Spectrum and had bought a number of Spectrum programs that had been advertised in computer magazines. Some of them were better than others. One day I noticed an advert for a program by Gilsoft in Barry. I was born in Barry and was living in Cardiff (Wales) at the time which is only about 12 miles from Barry. I phoned Gilsoft and arranged to call in and have a look at some of their programs before I bought them. (I did buy some of their programs) During the time I was with the Gilberts the conversation turned to adventure games and I subsequently agreed to write an adventure game for them to sell.”
– Interview Graeme Yeandle.

Written by Graeme Yeandle, it was published on the ZX Spectrum by Gilsoft in December 1983. Although available to the general public, it was used by several games companies to create best-selling titles; over 450 commercially published titles for the ZX Spectrum were written using The Quill. Yeandle has stated himself that the inspiration for The Quill was an article in the August 1980 issue of Practical Computing by Ken Reed in which was described the use of a database to produce an adventure game.

“The Interpreter was written in Z80 assembler, based on Ken’s article, the database was also written in assembler and the result was called Timeline. This was all done on the cassette based Spectrum and it took quite a time just to make a small change to the database. It soon became clear that an easier way of editing the database was needed so that I could write more adventures quicker. The idea of selling this adventure writing system soon followed and The Quill was born, written entirely in Assembler. I then used it to write Magic Castle.”
– Interview Graeme Yeandle.

After Yeandle wrote one database-driven adventure game (Timeline) for Gilsoft, he realised that a database editor was needed to interact with and so the The Quill was born. It only allowed for the creation of text-only adventures (also called interactive fiction), using a text interpretation process known as a verb–noun parser. Later on, an add-on by the name of The Illustrator was made to permit graphics in the adventures.

The Quill was generally very well received by the computer press of the time. Micro Adventurer described it as “a product […] to revolutionise the whole microcomputer scene” and rated it “10 out of 10”, while Computer and Video Games described it as “worth every penny of the £14.95 price tag” and CRASH said it was “The Quill opens up a huge area of complex programming to thousands of people. It might be thought that this single program would ruin the market for the commercial software houses selling adventure games, but I don’t think that is at all likely. After all thousands, millions, of people own typewriters, but how many of them write novels? The most critical element that you can’t buy in with The Quill is imagination and actual writing ability of the literary kind. Even if you are not thinking of writing adventures in order to market them The Quill is a massively worthwhile investment since it is one of the few programs for the Spectrum on the market which will give lasting satisfaction and arouse the creative urge. At £14.95 it is almost ludicrously underpriced for what it does and, more importantly, what it allows others to do.“. Sinclair User were somewhat initially less enthusiastic, saying “no package, even if it is brilliant in the production of games using the sausage machine technique, will provide an answer to properly machine-coded and original games”, although later in 1984 they said “The Quill produces programs on a par with handwritten commercial programs”. The Quill was awarded “Best Utility” in the CRASH Readers Awards 1984. After the original ZX Spectrum version, The Quill was ported to the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit family and Apple II. Versions were also published by CodeWriter, Inc. in North America (under the name of AdventureWriter) and a version by Norace in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. A French version was also made by Codewriter. In 1985, Neil Fleming-Smith ported The Quill to the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron computers for Gilsoft.

In 1986, Incentive Software released the GAC (Graphic Adventure Creator) that grew to become a tough competitor for the Gilsoft software. Following then the success of the original package, a second-generation Quill was produced with more capabilities and sold under the name The Professional Adventure Writer, also know as The PAW.

The PAWS enhanced the Quill’s abilities by 100%. It provided facilities to write textual adventure games not only with hard-wired graphic illustrations, but also featured a last-generation enhanced parser that understood adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions as well as verbs and nouns and that could be programmed to cope with a very natural English. It was written by Graeme Yeandle along with Tim Gilberts and Phil Wade based on Yeandle’s Quill. The PAWS was published by Gilsoft in 1986 and quickly gained a loyal following. It improved over The Quill in very many several ways. In particular, its textual input parser was more sophisticated, meaning inputs were no longer confined to the two-word telegraphic verb noun (e.g. “GO WEST; TAKE LAMP”) style. PAW also supported NPCs, different character sets, full use of the memory of the 128K ZX Spectrum and an elegant language that could be put to the best effect memory permitting.

The PAWS was produced in two versions. The Editor version (e.g. ZX Spectrum) included the ability to split the screen and have pictures in the upper section and text in the lower section. The Compiler version (e.g. CP/M) compiled databases from source files and didn’t have any picture capability (the compiler was written in C). A later development of the compiler version allowed the screen to be split and for pictures to be displayed in the upper section. Each picture was a separate disk file.

Graeme Yeandle has also released an updated version of the CP/M version of the PAWS for MS-DOS under the name PC Adventure Writer. It is based on the CP/M version of the PAWS but the Compiler and Interpreter are both written in C.

As testified by the material compiled by the World of Spectrum site, the number of titles produced using both The Quill and The PAW, mostly homebrewed, is large. You can google e.g. “zenobi” and find about one of the most important and active low-cost hombrew software houses by the time.

About the PAW features ()

rReview published by Mike Gerrard in YOUR SINCLAIR #18, Jun 1987