Code Reuse

In game development, you'll often have a small piece of data and behaviour which you need to duplicate between many different classes. In a go-kart racing game, you might require all entities to register their bounding box with the collision system; or in a city simulator, you might have many different buildings which have their own population count and tax revenue; or in a 3D exploration game, you may wish to plug hundreds of diverse entities into the same animation system.

You already have several ways to achieve this sort of code reuse:

  • In many cases, the code can simply be refactored into a free function. "The on-grow method for all of my fruit tree classes is identical - they should be calling a shared grow-fruit-tree function instead."

  • Duck typing can be an elegant solution for some simple cases, but you normally can't use it to uphold complex invariants. "If I'm creating an entity, and I notice that has a target-rect field, I will automatically register it with the combat-targeting system."

  • Composition over inheritance will explicitly fracture your classes into small, reusable components which are separate from the whole. This will certainly make each component reusable, but it can be a hassle. "When I create a Skyscraper, it automatically creates a new PopulationNode and TaxNode."

  • If the only thing the entities have in common is that they all belong to the same general category, and some external system needs to manipulate them all in the same way, then you could implement a tag database. "Each frame, my Lava entity looks up any nearby entities with the heat-sensitive tag, and calls their on-heat method."

  • Consider whether the differences between your entities can be described using plain data rather than code. If you were to reimplement the original Final Fantasy in GameLisp, you wouldn't need distinct classes for an Ogre and a Creep - you would just have a single Enemy class which makes use of plain data like "hit points" and "sprite size". Likewise, if you were to reimplement The Sims, all of the different doorways would probably be modelled as a single Door class which is capable of displaying a few different sprites.

Occasionally, none of those options will be sufficient. This usually happens when a component is shared by a very large number of entities (dozens or hundreds), and those entities need to frequently interact with the component in some intrusive way, so splitting it into a separate object would make things too bureaucratic. For example...

  • In an action-adventure game, we don't want to type out [@collider 'coords] every single time an entity needs to know its own coordinates; we just want to type @coords instead. On the other hand, an entity's physical location is a very fragile thing (if you get it wrong, entities will start clipping through the scenery!), so our physics system shouldn't just manipulate a bare @coords field using duck typing.

  • In a theme-park simulation game, the code for saving and loading the game needs to be able to serialize and deserialize most of the game's entities. Explicitly writing serialize and deserialize methods for every building, every visitor and every worker would be labour-intensive and tedious.

  • In a massively-multiplayer online game, the code for scripting the user-interface might need to filter or intercept certain methods. For example, if a user-interface element has scrollbars, then the arguments to its on-mouse-click method should be adjusted to give the illusion that it belongs to a different coordinate system. If each new type of user-interface element was forced to convert between coordinate systems manually, you would end up writing a lot of extra code, and bugs would certainly creep in.

In situations like these, your first port of call should be a macro or a classmacro. It would be straightforward to write a defentity macro which acts like defclass, but emits a few extra clauses to hook the resulting class into the savegame system and the collision system.

If you find that even macros aren't powerful enough, GameLisp does have one more trick up its sleeve.


A mixin is a small class which can't be instantiated. Instead, it can only be "mixed into" the definition of another class. The target class will incorporate all of the mixin's fields, methods, states, and so on, almost as though they were simply copied and pasted at the beginning of the class definition.

(defmixin Sized
  (field width)
  (field height))

(defclass Box
  (mixin Sized)
  (init (@width @height)))

(let box (Box 20 15))
(prn [box 'width] [box 'height]) ; prints 20 15
(prn (is? box Box) (is? box Sized)) ; prints #t #t

This is similar to a classmacro, but it comes with several advantages:

  • Mixins can customize their object's initialization and finalization. (This would be difficult to achieve using a classmacro, since each class may only have a single init clause and a single fini clause, which can't normally be wrapped.)

  • Mixins introduce a new namespace. If your SoftBody mixin specifically wants to override a method introduced by your Collider mixin, it can include the clause (wrap Collider:something ...).

  • As demonstrated above, the (is? obj class) function can be used to test whether an object's class implements a particular mixin.

; a mixin which adds a `coords` property and a `move` method to a class, 
; and ensures that the collision system is kept up-to-date whenever the 
; coords are changed.
(defmixin Coords
  (prop coords 
    (set (new-coords)
      (= @field new-coords)
      (colliders:update @self)))

  (met move (dx dy)
    (colliders:move @self dx dy))

  (init-mixin (..args)
    (@base ..args)
    (colliders:register @self))

  (fini-mixin ()
    (colliders:unregister @self)))

Advanced Wrapper Methods

In the previous chapter, we discussed wrapper methods, which can be used to override a specific met or wrap clause defined elsewhere in the class.

So far, the obvious limitation of wrapper methods is that they require you to know the entire structure of your class up front. There's a Jumping state, which wraps the Active:energy-level property, which wraps the Main:energy-level property...

Let's suppose you have an on-step method, and you want to write a mixin which spawns a particle effect every step, without replacing or modifying the entity's normal behaviour. GameLisp gives you two options for achieving that.

The first option:

(defmixin Cloudy
  (wrap Main:on-step ()
    (spawn-particle @coords 'clouds)))

If Main:on-step is undefined, or if you include multiple states or mixins which all try to override Main:on-step, or if a state other than Main tries to define a met on-step, an error will occur. This is normally a good thing! It highlights the fact that your code has an ambiguous order of execution, and it prompts you to disambiguate it by, for example, changing one of your wrapper methods to override Cloudy:on-step instead.

In cases where you're absolutely sure that you don't care about the order of execution, you could consider the second option:

(defmixin Cloudy
  (wrap _:on-step ()
    (spawn-particle @coords 'clouds)))

The underscore makes this a "wildcard wrapper method". It means "I want this code to be executed when on-step is called, but I don't care about what happens before or after".

Wildcard wrappers are much less strict than explicit wrappers. It's fine to have a wildcard wrapper for _:on-step, even when there is no actual met on-step anywhere in the class. If there is no other on-step method, or if it's disabled, (@base) will be a silent no-op. There can be any number of _:on-step wrappers in each class; you can even put several in the same state!

Wildcard wrappers can only be invoked using their unqualified method name: (.Cloudy:on-step ob) would fail, but (.on-step ob) would succeed. When you call an unqualified method like on-step, (@base) will chain through all of the wildcard wrappers in an unspecified order, followed by all of the explicit wrappers, followed by the met form. Methods which belong to disabled states are skipped.

Although wildcard wrappers can lead to spaghetti code when overused, they're a powerful tool when used responsibly.

(class Monster
  (met on-inspect ()
    (prn "It's terrifying!"))
  (state OnFire
    (wrap _:on-inspect ()
      (prn "Also, it's on fire!")))
  (state Howling
    (wrap _:on-inspect ()
      (prn "It's howling, too!"))))

Initialization and Finalization

Mixins are initialized using an init-mixin clause, which defines a wrapper for the class's initializer method. If a class has three mixins and an init clause...

  (mixin A B C)

...then it effectively has a hidden initializer method Main:init, which is wrapped by C:init-mixin, which is wrapped by B:init-mixin, which is wrapped by A:init-mixin.

Like any other wrapper method, init-mixin is versatile. It can intercept leading or trailing initializer arguments, modify arguments, and execute arbitrary code before or after calling (@base). The only thing it's not capable of doing is inverting the flow of information - a class can't decide which arguments to pass to each of its mixins - but this is a deliberate design choice.

Finalization is simpler than initialization. When an object is killed, GameLisp will first call the object's fini method, and then call fini-mixin for each mixin from right to left. fini-mixin isn't a wrapper method, so it doesn't need to call (@base).

States in Mixins

Mixins may define states. However, it's an error for a mixin to define a state which is also defined by the target class, or by another mixin. GameLisp provides no way to mix two states together, simply because it would be too confusing.

For similar reasons, mixins don't shadow their implementing class. If the toplevel of a mixin defines a field or constant which is also defined by the Main state of its implementing class, it's an error.

If a mixin defines a state, that state will participate in name-shadowing as normal, as though it was copied-and-pasted in at the very start of the implementing class.

(defmixin Heavy
  (const kg 1000)
  (state* Burdened
    (const kg 1100)))

; this is an error, because the name Weight:kg collides with Heavy:kg.
; if Heavy's (const kg 1000) were commented out, the code would compile.
(defclass Weight
  (mixin Heavy)
  (const kg 500))

Mixin States

It's ordinarily an error for a mixin and a state to share the same name, because it would cause a namespace collision:

; which one of these two fields is named `Fighting:health`?
(mixin Fighting
  (field health)
  (state Fighting
    (field health)))

However, there's a special exception when a mixin only contains a single state or state*, with no other clauses. In that case, the state "takes over" the mixin's namespace. In effect, you end up with a mixin which can be dynamically enabled and disabled - a useful abstraction.

Aside: Why Not Inheritance?

Most object-oriented languages in common use include an inheritance hierarchy. Code reuse is achieved by designating one or more "parent classes" for each class. All of the fields and methods in the parent class are incorporated into the child class.

I find that this is often an unhelpful abstraction, for two main reasons:

  • The boundary between a parent class and its children can be fiendishly difficult to manage. Designing ClassA so that it extends and improves ClassB sounds deceptively straightforward, but in reality it's anything but.

  • The problems with multiple inheritance are well-documented, but single inheritance is too limited. It tends to create awkward, towering inheritance hierarchies, bringing in many features which the final object doesn't actually need.

Mixins vaguely resemble an inheritance hierarchy, but they're deliberately simpler. Mixins can't include or require other mixins, so they form a flat list rather than a tree. Mixins don't have a general ability to override or shadow everything in the implementing class - they just have a limited ability to override initialization, finalization and methods. By convention, mixins are also much smaller than base classes: a mixin should define a small, reusable piece of code, rather than defining the entire foundation upon which another class will be built.

Emulating Inheritance

One thing which single inheritance excels at is defining multiple classes which are almost identical, but with only small differences in their logic. In a military-strategy game, if you have a red soldier with an aggressive AI and a musket, and a blue soldier with a defensive AI and a pike, then it would be natural to model them as:

class Soldier extends Entity { ... }
class RedSoldier extends Soldier { ... }
class BlueSolider extends Soldier { ... }

If you're trying to achieve something like this in GameLisp, I would strongly advise against defining a Soldier mixin. Mixins aren't designed to be used for inheritance; you'll be able to make it work with a little effort, but it won't be elegant.

Instead, you should use runtime configuration: a single Soldier class which accepts a color parameter. States make it easy to compartmentalize the class into two sub-types.

(defclass Soldier
  (init (color)
    (match color
      ('red (@enab! 'Red))
      ('blue (@enab! 'Blue))
      (_ (bail))))

  (state Red
    (const weapon-name 'musket)
    (met select-action ()

  (state Blue
    (const weapon-name 'pike)
    (met select-action ()

Aside: Why Not ECS?

The Entity-Component-System pattern (ECS) is currently very popular among Rust game developers.

With strict use of an ECS, entities are completely refactored into small, independent components. All game code must be written in terms of those components, rather than directly manipulating individual entities. In exchange for this inconvenience, ECS provides excellent performance.

Architecturally speaking, ECS is an appropriate choice for games with intricate, complex rule systems. The ECS will encourage you to generalise anything which can possibly be generalised; this can reduce the risk that your game's complexity will spiral out of control. Herbert Wolverson demonstrates the advantages of this approach in his excellent roguelike tutorial.

However, ECS carries a major disadvantage: it makes it more difficult to write code which isn't generalised.

Let's suppose you were recreating Super Mario Bros. 3 using an ECS, and you needed to program the behaviour of the final boss, Bowser. Bowser has an attack which isn't seen anywhere else in the game: he leaps into the air and strikes downwards, destroying any scenery beneath him. When he finally breaks through the floor, there's a special sound effect, the screen shakes, and the exit door opens. The uniqueness of this attack is what makes the battle so exciting!

In practice, the simplest way to make all of this work with a strict ECS would be to define a BowserComponent and BowserSystem, both of which are only ever used by this single entity. They would almost certainly be more difficult to write, and have worse performance, compared to a naive object-oriented approach. If most of your entities are as unique as Bowser, defining a new System for each of them would be tedious.

GameLisp is designed for games in which most entities are "special" in some way; games where each entity's unique features are best described using code, rather than plain data. Because this type of game tends to be a poor fit for the ECS pattern, GameLisp wasn't designed with ECS in mind. Trying to integrate GameLisp with a pure, strict ECS would be unwise.

However, many games take the middle road: they define a few generalised entity features using an ECS, while still permitting individual entities to be scripted using a more traditional object-oriented approach. For those games, GameLisp would be a good choice. A few technical challenges are discussed in Section 2.