We've now described how GameLisp's parser converts text into data, and how GameLisp's evaluator executes data as code.

To complete the picture, there's one more step that we need to discuss. Just before evaluating any code, GameLisp's expander performs transformations on the code tree.

It's easy to hook in your own functions to customize the behaviour of the expander. These functions, which transform GameLisp data/code into different GameLisp data/code, are known as macros.

The Expansion Algorithm

This is the basic algorithm which GameLisp uses to expand a form in place:

  1. If the form is not an array, or if it's an empty array, then no expansion is performed.

  2. Expand the array's first element in place.

  3. If the array's first element is now a symbol, and that symbol is currently bound to a macro function, then invoke that macro function, passing in all of the array's elements as arguments. Replace the array with the result of the macro invocation, then restart from step 1.

  4. If the array doesn't start with quote, expand each of its arguments in place, from left to right (starting with the array's second element, then moving on to its third element, and so on.)

In simple terms, this algorithm traverses the entire source tree, looking for arrays which resemble function calls. When the array's "callee" is a symbol which is bound to a macro, that macro is called like a function, and then the entire array is replaced with the result of the call.

; if the symbol `name` is bound to a macro, the expander will 
; invoke ((macro 'name) a b c), and then replace the (name a b c) 
; form with the result of that call.
(name a b c)

The (splice) macro is a special case: it's replaced by each of its argument forms, inserted next to one another in-place.

(some-function (splice a) b (splice c d) (splice) e)

; after macro-expansion...
(some-function a b c d e)

Binding Macros

A macro is just a normal GameLisp function, of type fn or rfn. It takes zero or more forms as its input, and produces one form as its output.

Like variables, macros can be bound globally or locally. To manipulate a symbol's global macro binding, use the builtin functions bind-macro!, del-macro!, macro and macro=.

To introduce a local macro binding, you can use the let-macro special form wherever you would use let.

; these two forms are similar, but the first form binds its
; fn to a local variable, and the second form binds its fn
; to a local macro.

(let add (fn (a b)
  (+ a b)))

(let-macro add (a b)
  (+ a b))

Example: when and unless

Recall the syntax for the if special form: (if condition then else).

This syntax is easy to understand when working with very small forms which fit onto a single line, but when working with complicated multi-line forms, it's not always ideal.

; at a glance, you might mistakenly think that this form will 
; print both lines when i is less than 100
(if (< i 100)
  (prn "first line")
  (prn "second line"))

; the do and #n forms here add a lot of visual noise
(if drawing-suppressed?
    (draw-rect x y w h)
    (draw-circle center-x center-y radius)))

This is exactly the type of problem which can be solved using macros: we have a small bit of awkward, repetitive or confusing syntax, and we'd like to make it more clear.

The when macro is shorthand for "if the condition is true, evaluate a do form; otherwise, evaluate #n".

(bind-macro! 'when (fn (condition-form
  `(if ~condition-form

(when (< i 100)
  (prn "first line")
  (prn "second line"))

The unless macro is similar, but it evaluates the do form when its condition is false.

(bind-macro! 'unless (fn (condition-form
  `(if ~condition-form

(unless drawing-suppressed?
  (draw-rect x y w h)
  (draw-circle center-x center-y radius))


Our when and unless macro definitions introduced several unfamiliar pieces of syntax:

Recall that the quote special form, abbreviated ', suppresses evaluation. If you want to produce a tree of nested arrays, then rather than constructing them element-by-element, it's much simpler to just write them down as text and quote them so that they're returned verbatim.

; these two forms produce equivalent results

'((one eins) (two zwei) (three drei))

(arr (arr 'one 'eins) (arr 'two 'zwei) (arr 'three 'drei))

backquote is like quote, but more powerful.

Firstly, backquote always allocates an entirely new, mutable array (whereas quote returns a shared, immutable array - this is usually more efficient, but it's not always what you want). It's like a shorthand for the (arr ...) constructor.

Secondly, backquote allows evaluated forms and quoted forms to be mixed with one another. This is called "quasi-quotation", because only part of the form is quoted. If you want some forms within a backquote to be evaluated while building the array, prefix them with ~. All other forms will be quoted.

(let one-de 'eins)
(let two-de (fn () 'zwei))

; the following three forms all produce equivalent results

'((one eins) (two zwei) (three drei))

`((one ~one-de) (two ~(two-de)) (three ~(sym "drei")))

(arr (arr 'one one-de) (arr 'two (two-de)) (arr 'three (sym "drei")))

We briefly mentioned in the previous chapter that prefixing one of arr's arguments with .. will cause the full contents of that argument to be "splayed" into the resulting arr. This is particularly useful when working with backquote and unquote, as we demonstrated with when and unless above.


Within a macro, you can call the built-in function (macro-no-op). This immediately cancels execution of the macro, and it suppresses step 3 in the algorithm. The current form is left as it is, and the algorithm proceeds to step 4, expanding the form's children as normal.

This enables the same name to be simultaneously bound both to a macro, and to a function or special form. Without (macro-no-op), it would be impossible for a macro to expand to a function call which shares the same name, because it would trigger an endless loop: (the-fn a b) would expand to (the-fn a b) which would expand to (the-fn a b)... but (macro-no-op) breaks that cycle.

We've previously mentioned that the let special form can accept an arbitrary number of arguments: with three or more arguments, it behaves like multiple consecutive calls to let. This is actually achieved using a macro which is globally bound to the let symbol:

; this form...
(let a b, c d)

; ...expands to this one:
  (let a b)
  (let c d))

; the `splice` macro can expand into multiple forms, so it becomes:
(let a b)
(let c d)

; each of those (let) forms also invokes the (let) macro, but when that
; macro is invoked with two or fewer arguments, it just calls (macro-no-op)

More generally, macros and variables occupy entirely different namespaces. A particular symbol can be bound to a global variable, a macro, both, or neither. A local variable binding will not shadow a local or global macro, and let-macro will not shadow a local or global variable.

Order of Expansion

There's a small problem with our expansion algorithm: if global macros are defined dynamically during evaluation, and if code is expanded before being evaluated, how is it that a global macro defined early in a source file can be used to expand code later on in that same source file?

(bind-macro! 'fizz (fn ()
  `(prn "fizz")))

; why can we use the 'fizz macro to expand this form?

It wouldn't be possible for us to interleave expansion with evaluation, because that would be much too slow: we would need to re-expand every form every single time that it's evaluated. This would force GameLisp to be an AST-walking interpreter, making it many times slower than it is today. It's essential that we have a separate expansion step before evaluation.

We could set up the expander so that it's capable of detecting bind-macro! calls and evaluating them during expansion, but that would mean that bind-macro! is no longer truly dynamic. Patterns like this would stop working:

(unless file-access-disabled?
  (bind-macro! 'write-file (fn (file content)
    `(stream-to-file ~file ~content))))

The solution is a simple compromise. When working their way through the forms in a GameLisp source file, the expander and evaluator "take turns". The first form is expanded; then the first form is evaluated; then the second form is expanded; then the second form is evaluated... and so on.

This means that a global macro binding can be used later on in the same source file, but it can't be used later on in the same toplevel form. If you want to define a macro to be used locally, you should use let-macro instead.

  (bind-macro! 'fizz (fn ()
    `(prn "fizz")))

  (fizz)) ; this doesn't work...

(fizz) ; ...but this does

  (let-macro fizz ()
    `(prn "fizz"))

  (fizz)) ; ...and this does

Toplevel Scopes

Although evaluation and expansion do only process one toplevel form at a time, that's not the whole story. If each toplevel form were completely separate from the next, it would be impossible to use forms like let or let-macro at the toplevel.

We say that under some circumstances, a group of forms is processed in a "toplevel scope". For example, when loading a GameLisp source file, the toplevel scope continues until the end of that file. This means that a toplevel let form works exactly as you would expect.

Evaluation APIs

The function for running a GameLisp source file is called load. It opens a source file, reads it into a string, parses that string into a series of forms, and expands and evaluates each form in the same toplevel scope.

GameLisp projects are likely to end up with a modular, branching tree of files: the source file main.glsp calls (load "engine.glsp"), which calls (load "engine-drawing.glsp"), and so on. In order to prevent the same source file from accidentally being loaded twice, we provide the function require. If the current GameLisp runtime has already received a require call for the specified file, it silently does nothing. Otherwise, require is exactly the same as load.

eval and eval-multi are like load, but they receive their forms as arguments rather than parsing them from a string. eval-multi accepts an array of forms, expanding and evaluating those forms one after the other, all in the same toplevel scope. eval is the same, but its argument is a single form rather than an array of forms.


If you've worked with Rust's macro_rules! macros, you'll know that they're hygienic: it's not possible for a macro to name a local variable from outside its own lexical scope, unless that name was passed in as one of the macro's arguments.

fn main() {
macro_rules! unhygienic_macro {
    () => (println!("{}", local_name));

fn scope() {
    let local_name = 42;

    macro_rules! hygienic_macro {
        () => (println!("{}", local_name));

    hygienic_macro!(); //prints 42
    unhygienic_macro!(); //error: cannot find value `local_name` in this scope

This is good for program correctness, but it can also be inconvenient. Because GameLisp values convenience very highly, GameLisp's macros are unhygienic.

The main risks when working with unhygienic macros are that you may unintentionally refer to a local variable when you mean to refer to a global one, or you may "leak" a local variable which is supposed to be private to the macro's implementation.

; this macro checks that adding 1 to 2 produces 3 before executing a
; block of code. defensive programming!
(bind-macro! 'with-add-assertion (fn (..body)
    (let tmp 1)
    (unless (== (+ tmp 2) 3) 
      (bail "addition is broken!"))

; prints 1 rather than 5: addition is broken, but we don't detect it 
; because `bail` is also broken!
  (let + -)
  (let bail (fn (ignored) #n))
    (let x 3)
    (prn (+ x 2))))

; the macro shadows `tmp`, printing 1 rather than the expected 7
(let tmp 7)
  (prn tmp)) 

You can solve the first problem by explicitly accessing the global rather than local version of a name. (However, this should rarely be necessary - it's unusual for a global name to be shadowed by a local one, and when it does happen, it's something that the overrider probably wants to affect all nested code, including code generated by macros.)

(bind-macro! 'with-add-assertion (fn (..body)
    (let tmp 1)
    (unless (== (+ tmp 2) 3) 
      ((global 'bail) "addition is broken!"))

The second problem is more insidious and important: macros often need to define temporary variables, and needing to come up with a unique name for each of them would be painful. This is how the C preprocessor ended up with silly names like __FILE__ and __STDC_VERSION__.

We solve this problem using gensym, a built-in function which returns a unique symbol. If you use a fresh gensym for each local binding generated by a macro, you don't need to worry about accidentally shadowing the user's own variables:

(bind-macro! 'with-add-assertion (fn (..body)
  (let temp-sym (gensym))

    (let ~tmp-sym 1)
    (unless (== (+ ~tmp-sym 2) 3) 
      (bail "addition is broken!"))

This is such a common pattern that we have special syntax for it: when backquote detects a quoted symbol which ends with #, it replaces each occurence of that symbol with the result of a (gensym).

(prn `(foo# foo# bar#)) ; prints #<gs:foo:0> #<gs:foo:0> #<gs:bar:1> 

(bind-macro! 'with-add-assertion (fn (..body)
    (let tmp# 1)
    (unless (== (+ tmp# 2) 3) 
      (bail "addition is broken!"))

Manual Expansion

You'll sometimes want to expand a form without immediately evaluating it. For example, when writing a macro, you might want to perform some processing on the expanded version of its arguments, rather than the unexpanded version.

The built-in function expand takes a single value as its argument, recursively expands it according to the usual algorithm, and then returns the expanded result.

On the other hand, expand-1 gives you finer control over the expansion process by performing a single "step" of the expansion algorithm at a time. It also allows you to override the expansion function, and to detect when macro-no-op is called.