Checking whether a value has a particular shape, and extracting other values from its interior, is a fundamental operation. In languages which don't have first-class support for destructuring, this operation tends to be unnecessarily difficult. For example, binding array elements to local variables in C is more verbose than it ought to be:

assert(array_len >= 3);
float x = array_ptr[0];
float y = array_ptr[1];
float z = array_ptr[2];

Likewise for iterating over an array of 3D points in Lua:

for _, point in ipairs(points) do
    local x, y, z = point.x, point.y, point.z
    -- ...

GameLisp includes destructuring facilities which are as powerful as Rust's, with a number of changes and additions to reflect the fact that GameLisp is dynamically-typed rather than statically-typed.

Basic Patterns

A pattern may appear anywhere that you might create a new variable binding: the left-hand-side of a let, def, field, or with-global form, a function parameter, or the item in a for loop.

A pattern is a form, but it's not evaluated or macro-expanded in the normal way. Patterns have their own special evaluation rules.

When a pattern is a symbol, it matches any value and binds it to that symbol.

(let x-doubled (* x 2))

The symbol _ is special: it matches any value and discards it.

(forn (_ 100)

(let _ 100)
(prn _) ; an error: the symbol _ is not bound to a variable

Self-evaluating forms, like strings, quoted forms, tables, empty arrays, and numbers, only match a value which is eq? to the pattern. The value is then discarded.

; both of these succeed, but without creating any bindings
(let 10 (+ 5 5)) 
(let #((a b)) (tab ('a 'b)))

Unlike Rust, patterns in let bindings are not required to be infallible. Any pattern can fail to match. If a mismatch occurs in let, def, field, with-global or for, it's an error.

(let "xyz" (arr 'x 'y 'z)) ; an error
(let 'a-symbol (tab ('a 'b))) ; an error

You can deal with fallible bindings using the match, when-let and matches? macros.

  • match checks a value against a series of patterns and executes some code for the first pattern which successfully matches the value, returning #n if no patterns match.
  • when-let does the same for a single pattern.
  • matches? returns #t when a value matches a pattern, or #f when it's a mismatch.

(match (len ar)
    "empty array")
    "array with a single element")
    "array with {n} elements"))

A pattern isn't always just a single form; it's sometimes described by a series of consecutive forms. For example, wherever you would write a pattern, you can instead write x at pat. This processes pat as normal, but also binds the additional variable x, which is set to the pattern's input value. (This is similar to Rust's x @ pat syntax.)


A "predicate" is a function which asks a question. For example, the functions int?, >=, eq? and fn-yields? are all predicates.

Any pattern can test an arbitrary predicate using the syntax pat : pred?. When pat matches the input value, the predicate function pred? is invoked - if the result is false, then the match becomes a mismatch.

Note that the : is whitespace-sensitive, so pat: pred? would be invalid syntax.

(match arg
  (i : int?
    "the integer {i}")
  (f : flo?
    "the floating-point number {f}")
    (bail "expected a number but received {(type-of val)}")))

(let result : num? (calculate-number))

(when-let f : flo? result
  (prn "calculated the floating-point number {f}")
  (prn (matches? result _ : int?))) ; prints #f

When pred? is a symbol, the predicate is invoked on the input value being tested, (pred? input). Under those circumstances, to avoid confusion, pat must be a symbol or _.

When pred? is not a symbol, it's evaluated as an arbitrary form which has access to all of the pattern's bindings. If the evaluation result is false, the pattern is a mismatch. The form will usually be a function call which inspects one or more of the pattern's variables.

; a predicate can be used like a match guard in Rust
(match (calculate-x)
  (x : (== x 0)
  (x : (> x 0)
    "the positive number {x}")
    "the negative number {x}"))

You can test arbitrarily complex predicates by defining your own functions.

(let-fn u8? (n)
  (and (int? n) (<= 0 n 255)))

(defn rgb (r : u8?, g : u8?, b : u8?)
  (bitor (bitshl r 16) (bitshl g 8) b))

(ensure (== (rgb 0xb7 0x41 0x0e) 0xb7410e))

Predicates can perform Boolean operations using the forms (and pred? ...), (or pred? ...) and (not pred?). These forms can be arbitrarily nested inside one another.

(match f
  (f : (and flo? (or inf? nan?))
    "a weird float {f}")
  (f : flo?
    "a normal float {f}")
    "not a float"))

(when-let sym : (and sym? has-global?) input
  (let g (global sym))
  (prn "the input is a symbol bound to the global {g}"))

Predicates are not a static type system! When you place a predicate on a variable's definition, it only checks the variable's initial value - if the variable is mutated, the predicate may no longer hold.

(def name : str? "global string")
(= name 'assigned-symbol)
(prn (str? name)) ; prints #f


An array pattern will match an array value with exactly the same number of arguments.

(let (one two three) '(1 2 3))
(let (one two) '(1 2 3 4 5)) ; an error

Each element of the array pattern is, itself, a pattern.

(let ((a b) (c d)) '((1 2) (3 4)))

Complex patterns should be separated using commas to improve readability.

(defn constant-fold (form)
  (match form
    ((callee : (has? foldable-ops callee), a : num?, b : num?)
      ((global callee) a b))

(prn (constant-fold '(+ 2 3))) ; prints 5
(prn (constant-fold '(+ var-name 3))) ; prints (+ var-name 3)

Predicates can access variables defined for earlier array elements - not just their current element.

(let (one, two : (> two one)) '(1 2))

In forms like let and def, when there is no initializer value, the pattern will automatically succeed and set all of its bindings to #n. This is a convenient way to declare several uninitialized local variables at once.

(let (width height depth))
(prn width height depth) ; prints #n #n #n

Optional Patterns

(? pat) is an "optional pattern" - it represents an element which may or may not exist. In an array pattern, if that element is missing (because the array is too short to have an element at that index), the pattern unconditionally succeeds and all of its bindings are initialized to #n.

(let (a (? b) (? c)) '(1 2))
(prn a b c) ; prints 1 2 #n

; the predicate succeeds, even though (int? #n) is false
(let (d : int?, (? e) : int?) '(4)) 
(prn d e) ; prints 4 #n

An optional array element may specify a default value, which is used in place of #n when the element is missing. The syntax is (? pat init). When the pattern has a predicate, (? pat init) : pred?, the default value is tested by the predicate.

(let (x y (? z 0.0)) '(5.0 3.5))
(prn x y z) ; prints 5.0 3.5 0.0

While a default value is being evaluated, any bindings from earlier array elements will be in scope and initialized.

(let (small (? big (* small 10))) '(5))
(prn small big) ; prints 5 50

Rest Patterns

..pat is a "rest pattern" - it can be used to capture zero or more contiguous array elements which were not captured by any other patterns. Each element is tested against pat (including calling pat's predicate, if it has one, for each element individually). The rest pattern only matches when all of the individual elements match. Each variable binding in pat is bound to a newly-allocated array which contains one value for each element.

(let pairs '((a 1) (b 2) (c 3)))

(let (..(letters : sym?, numbers : int?)) pairs)

(prn letters numbers) ; prints (a b c) (1 2 3)

; the most common use of rest patterns is to unconditionally collect
; part of an array into a variable.
(let (first, second, : int?) '(0 1 2 3 4))
(prn first second rest) ; prints 0 1 (2 3 4)

; the .._ pattern can be used to discard any number of array elements.
; in that case, no allocation will be performed.
(let (first .._ last) '(0 1 2 3 4))
(prn first last) ; prints 0 4

The order of optional and rest patterns is quite flexible. Any of the following would be valid array patterns:

(a (? b) (? c))
(a (? b) ..c)
(..a b c)
(a ..b c)


Function parameter lists are just array patterns, where the input array contains all of the arguments to the function call. This means that functions and macros can take advantage of the full power of predicates, optional patterns, and rest patterns.

(defn draw-text (text : str?, x : num?, y : num?, 
                 (? font simple-font) : (is? font 'Font))

(defn process (first

  (unless (empty? rest)

Array patterns can be used to emulate function overloading. For example, this function expects a different parameter list depending on whether its first argument is a deque or a table:

(defn search (..args)
  (match args

    ((haystack : deque?, needle)
      (any? (fn1 (eq? _ needle)) haystack))

    ((haystack : tab?, key, value)
      (eq? [haystack key] value))

    (args (bail "invalid argument list {args}"))))

GameLisp can optimize functions more aggressively when their parameter list follows all of these rules:

  • is either the last parameter, or absent.
  • For (? opt) and parameters, the pattern itself is _ or a symbol.
  • For (? opt init) parameters, init is either self-evaluating (like ()) or quoted (like '(6 7)).

or Patterns

or isn't only useful in predicates. You can use an (or pat ...) form wherever you would use any other pattern. It matches, and binds, the first matching child pattern. If none of the child patterns match, the or pattern is a mismatch.

You can think of or as being like | in Rust patterns.

; match on a valid (+), (-), (*) or (/) form. (/) requires at least
; one argument, but the others can be called with zero arguments.
(match form
  ((or ((or '+ '- '*)
       ('/ first

All possible variable bindings from all of the child forms will be bound by the or pattern. If a variable isn't present in the sub-pattern which matches, that variable will still be bound, but it will be initialized to #n.

; search for an item in a deque, which can be defined either by a predicate
; callback, or by an argument which should be (eq?) to the item.
(defn search (haystack : deque?, (or is-needle? : callable?, needle-item))
  (for (i item) in (enumerate haystack)
      ((nil? is-needle?)
        (when (eq? needle-item item)
          (return i)))
        (when (is-needle? item)
          (return i)))))


When a pattern is an access form - in other words, when a pattern is enclosed in square brackets - it will attempt to index its value. The pattern matches if all of the indexes are present.

The access form's children are usually symbol patterns, in which case each indexed value is bound to the corresponding name.

(let [x y z] 3d-vector)
(let length (cbrt (+ (* x x) (* y y) (* z z))))

(let [height : int?, weight : flo?] physical-properties)

Each child form may also be an array (index pat), where index is a literal value (not necessarily a symbol!) used to index the collection, and pat is a pattern which is matched against the resulting value.

(let [(x src-x) (y src-y)] src-2d-vector)
(let [(x dst-x) (y dst-y)] dst-2d-vector)
(prn "from ({src-x}, {src-y}) to ({dst-x}, {dst-y})")

(let [(0 zeroth : flo?) (500 five-hundredth : flo?)] huge-array)

? and .. patterns work in much the same way that they do for arrays. The .. pattern will collect all remaining key/value pairs into a table; it only matches input collections which are, themselves, tables. Any predicates are tested against the value, rather than the key.

(let table #((a 1) (b 2) (d 4) (e 5)))

(let [a (? b) (? c) : int?] table)
(prn a b c) ; prints 1 2 #n
(prn rest) ; prints #((d 4) (e 5)), not necessarily in that order

File Formats

If you have some custom data files which your game should store - for example, the file format used by your level editor - then you should consider storing them in the GameLisp text format.

GameLisp already has powerful facilities for parsing and manipulating its own data-types, but patterns take things to the next level. For example, a function to validate the level file-format for a simple role-playing game might look like this:

(defn level-valid? (lvl)
  (matches? lvl [
    name : str?
    background-music : sym?
    (tiles (..(x : int?, y : int?)))
    (entities (..entity : entity-spec-valid?))

(defn entity-spec-valid? (entity)
  (matches? entity [
    class-name : sym?
    (coords (x : int?, y : int?))
    (? init-args ()) : arr?

; the (level-valid?) function would match a level file with these contents
    (name "tower-exterior")
    (background-music aria)
    (tiles ((0 5) (3 1) (1 1) (1 1) #|and so on|#))
    (entities (
        #((class-name TowerGuard) (coords (70 95)) (init-args (alert)))
        #((class-name Portcullis) (coords (70 60)))

; contrast similar code written in a more imperative style...
(defn entity-spec-valid? (entity)
    (sym? [entity (? 'class-name)])
    (has? entity 'coords)
      (let coords [entity 'coords])
        (arr? coords)
        (== (len coords) 2)
          (let x [coords 0], y [coords 1])
          (and (int? x) (int? y)))))
      (not (has? entity 'init-args))
      (arr? [entity 'init-args]))))

(defn level-valid? (lvl)
    (str? [lvl (? 'name)])
    (sym? [lvl (? 'background-music)])
    (has? lvl 'tiles)
    (block tiles-checker
      (for tile in [lvl 'tiles]
        (unless (and (arr? tile) (== (len tile) 2) (int? [tile 0]) (int? [tile 1]))
          (finish-block tiles-checker #f)))
    (has? lvl 'entities)
    (all? entity-spec-valid? [lvl 'entities])))

Patterns are concise and powerful, but they should be used cautiously - it can be difficult to fully understand the behaviour of a complex pattern. If you find that a pattern you've written isn't self-explanatory at a glance, consider refactoring it into multiple simpler patterns, even if that makes your code more verbose.

Cheat Sheet

_Match, and discard, any value
"hello"Match, and discard, the string "hello"
'worldMatch, and discard, the symbol world
xMatch any value and bind it to x
x : pred?Match a value for which (pred? x) is true, and bind it to x
pat : (form y z)As for pat, but only matches when (form y z) is true
x at patAs for pat, but additionally binds the input value to x
x at pat : pred?Combines the previous two cases
(or pat1 pat2)Match either pat1 or pat2
(pat1 pat2)Match an array of two elements
(pat1 (? pat2))Match an array of one or two elements
(pat1 ..pat2)Match an array of one or more elements
[x]Match a collection with the field 'x, binding it to x
[(x pat)]As for [x], but the value is matched against pat