Thursday, April 25, 2024

State Machines

One of the things you do when writing a game is to write little state machines for objects that have non-trivial behaviors. A game loop runs frequently (dozens to hundreds of times a second) and iterates over all the state machines and advances each of them by one state. The state machines will appear to run in parallel with each other. However, there is no guarantee of what order the state machines are advanced, so care must be taken if a machine reads or modifies another machine’s state.

CLOS provides a particularly elegant way to code up a state machine. The generic function step! takes a state machine and its current state as arguments. We represent the state as a keyword. An eql specialized method for each state is written.

(defclass my-state-machine ()
  ((state :initarg :initial-state :accessor state)))

(defgeneric step! (state-machine state))

(defmethod step! ((machine my-state-machine) (state (eql :idle)))  
  (when (key-pressed?)
    (setf (state machine) :keydown)))

(defmethod step! ((machine my-state-machine) (state (eql :keydown)))
  (unless (key-pressed?)
    (setf (state machine) :idle)))

The state variables of the state machine would be held in other slots in the CLOS instance.

One advantage we find here is that we can write an :after method on (setf state) that is eql specialized on the new state. For instance, in a game the :after method could start a new animation for an object.

(defmethod (setf state) :after ((new-state (eql :idle)) (machine my-state-machine))
  (begin-idle-animation! my-state-machine))

Now the code that does the state transition no longer has to worry about managing the animations as well. They’ll be taken care of when we assign the new state.

Because we’re using CLOS dispatch, the state can be a class instance instead of a keyword. This allows us to create parameterized states. For example, we could have a delay-until state that contained a timestamp. The step! method would compare the current time to the timestamp and go to the next state only if the time has expired.

(defclass delay-until ()
  ((timestamp :initarg :timestamp :reader timestamp)))

(defmethod step! ((machine my-state-machine) (state delay-until))
  (when (> (get-universal-time) (timestamp state))
    (setf (state machine) :active)))


Each step! method will typically have some sort of conditional followed by an assignment of the state slot. Rather that having our state methods work by side effect, we could make them purely functional by having them return the next state of the machine. The game loop would perform the assignment:

(defun game-loop (game)
    (dolist (machine (all-state-machines game))
      (setf (state machine) (step machine (state machine))))))

(defmethod step ((machine my-state-machine) (state (eql :idle)))  
  (if (key-pressed?)

I suppose you could have state machines that inherit from other state machines and override some of the state transition methods from the superclass, but I would avoid writing such CLOS spaghetti. For any object you’ll usually want exactly one state transition method per state. With one state transition method per state, we could dispense with the keyword and use the state transition function itself to represent the state.

(defun game-loop (game)
    (dolist (machine (all-state-machines game))
      (setf (state machine) (funcall (state machine) machine)))))

(defun my-machine/state-idle (machine)
  (if (key-pressed?)
         (incf (kestroke-count machine))

(defun my-machine/state-keydown (machine)
  (if (key-pressed?)

The disadvantage of this doing it this way is that states are no longer keywords. They don’t print nicely or compare easily. An advantage of doing it this way is that we no longer have to do a CLOS generic function dispatch on each state transition. We directly call the state transition function.

The game-loop function can be seen as a multiplexed trampoline. It sits in a loop and calls what was returned from last time around the loop. The state transition function, by returning the next state transition function, is instructing the trampoline to make the call. Essentially, each state transition function is tail calling the next state via this trampoline.

State machines without side effects

The state transition function can be a pure function, but we can remove the side effect in game-loop as well.

We keep parallel lists of machines and their states (represented as state transition functions).

(defun game-loop (machines states)
  (game-loop machines (map 'list #'funcall states machines)))

Now we have state machines and a driver loop that are pure functional.

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