Why Take Ecstasy

haskell, dsl, design, type trickery

/u/Ahri asked on reddit about yesterday’s post,

Perhaps you could explain a little bit about your choice to write ecstasy rather than to use apecs? I’ve not used apecs, I’m just interested as I had done some limited research into writing games in Haskell and apecs seemed to have traction.

That seems like a really good idea, and combined with the fact that I really haven’t published anything about ecstasy suggested I actually write about it!

What is an ECS?

So before diving in, let’s take a look at the problem an entity-component-system (ECS) solves. Let’s say we’re writing a simple 2D platformer, we’ll have dudes who can run around and jump on platforms.

The way I’d go about writing this before knowing about ECS would be to implement one feature at a time, generally using the player character to test it as I went. I write functions that look something like this:

moveActor :: Controller -> Actor -> Actor
moveActor ctrl actor =
  actor & actorPos +~ movingDirection ctrl

and then provide some types to hold all of the world together:

data Universe = Universe
  { _uPlayer       :: Actor
  , _uPlayerCtrl   :: Controller
  , _uCurrentLevel :: Level

data Level = Level
  { _lActors :: [Actor]

and finally write some glue code to lift moveActor over the universe.

updateUniverse :: Universe -> Universe
updateUniverse u@Universe{..} =
  u & uPlayer %~ moveActor _uPlayerCtrl
    & uCurrentLevel . lActors . traverse %~ moveActor someCtrl

On the surface this feels good. We’ve reused the code for moveActor for both the player and any other dudes on the level who might want to walk around. It feels like we can build up from here, and compose pieces as we go.

Which is true if you’re really patient, good at refactoring, or have spent a lot of time building things like this and know where you’re going to run afoul. Because you’re always going to run afoul in software.

The problem with our first attempt at this code is that it codifies a lot of implicit assumptions about our game. For example, did you notice that it implies we’ll always have an Actor for the player? It seems like a reasonable assumption, but what if you want to play a cut-scene? Or how about if you don’t want to always have control over the player? Maybe you’ve just been hit by something big that should exert some acceleration on you, and you don’t want to be able to just press the opposite direction on the control stick to negate it.

All of a sudden, as you try to code for these things, your simple moveActor function takes more and more parameters about the context of the circumstances in which it’s running. And what’s worse is that often the rules of how these behaviors should play out will change depending on whether its the player or some enemy in the level. We’re left with a conundrum – should we build ad-hoc infrastructure around the callers of moveActor or should we put all of the logic inside of it?

As you can imagine, it pretty quickly becomes a mess.

In one of the few times I’ll praise object-oriented programming, I have to say that its inheritance-based polymorphism lends itself well to this problem. You can build more complicated and specific behaviors out of your ancestors’ behaviors. Unfortunately, this approach bucks the OOP best-practice of “composition over inheritance.”

ECS takes what I consider to be the functional-programming-equivalent of this OOP strategy. It’s fundamental stake in the ground is that rather than representing your universe of game objects as an array-of-structs, you instead represent it as a struct-of-arrays. Conceptually, this is a cognitive shift that means instead of looking like this:

data GameObject = GameObject
  { position :: V2
  , velocity :: V2
  , graphics :: Picture
  , buffs    :: [Buff]
  , notAffectedByGravity :: Bool

type Universe = [GameObject]

you instead model the domain like this:

data Universe = Universe
  { position :: Array V2
  , velocity :: Array V2
  , graphics :: Array Picture
  , buffs    :: Array [Buff]
  , notAffectedByGravity :: Array Bool

This has some profound repercussions. First of all, notice that we have no guarantee that our Arrays are the same length, which implies that not every GameObject need have all of its possible components.

All of a sudden, we can pick and choose which components an entity has. Entities, now instead of being explicitly modeled by a GameObject are implicitly defined by an Int corresponding to their index in all of the arrays.

From here, we can now write specific, global behaviors that should manipulate the components of an entity. We can avoid a lot of our previous ad-hoc machinery by essentially running a map that performs pattern matching on only the components we want to care about. For example, we can say that we only want to draw entities who have both a position and a graphics. We want to apply gravity to all entities that have a velocity, but don’t have the notAffectedByGravity flag.


EDIT 2018-01-30: The author of apecs has replied to this post. It’s worth reading through, as it gives a useful perspective from the other side.

With an understanding of what ECS brings to the table, we’re now ready to take a look at different ways of implementing such a system. We first turn our attention to apecs.

If we wanted to model our above GameObject via apecs, it might look something like this:

newtype Position = Position (V2 Double)
instance Component Position where
  type Storage Position = Map Position

newtype Velocity = Velocity (V2 Double)
instance Component Velocity where
  type Storage Velocity = Map Velocity

newtype Graphics = Graphics Picture
instance Component Graphics where
  type Storage Graphics = Map Graphics

newtype Buffs = Buffs [Buff]
instance Component Buffs where
  type Storage Buffs = Map Buffs

newtype NotAffectedByGravity = NotAffectedByGravity
instance Flag NotAffectedByGravity where
  flag = NotAffectedByGravity
instance Component NotAffectedByGravity where
  type Storage NotAffectedByGravity = Set NotAffectedByGravity

makeWorld "World"
  [ ''Position
  , ''Velocity
  , ''Graphics
  , ''Buffs
  , ''NotAffectedByGravity

You’ll have to admit it’s a lot of boilerplate, which in turn would use Template Haskell to generate something similar to our conceptual Universe above:

data World = World
  { position :: Array (Maybe Position)
  , velocity :: Array (Maybe Velocity)
  , graphics :: Array (Maybe Graphics)
  , buffs    :: Array (Maybe Buffs)
  , notAffectedByGravity :: Set Int

I haven’t dug too much into the internals of apecs, so this representation might not be perfect, but it’s good enough for us to get an understanding of what’s going on here.

We can now use some of apecs’ primitives to, for example, transfer our velocity over to our position:

rmap $ \(Position p, Velocity v) -> Position $ p + v

This rmap function is something I’d describe as “fucking magic.” You pass it a lambda, it inspects the type of the lambda, uses the tuple of its input to determine which components an entity must have, and then will update the components of the corresponding output tuple.

At first, this seems like a fine abstraction, but it breaks down pretty quickly when used in anger. For example, what if you want to run a function over Position that only works if you don’t have a Velocity? Or if you want to remove a component from an entity? apecs can do it, but good luck finding the right function. Do you want cmap, cmapM, cmapM_, cimapM, cimapM_, rmap', rmap, wmap, wmap' or cmap'? After a week of working with the library, I still couldn’t come up with heads or tails for which function I needed in any circumstance. I’m sure there’s a mnemonic here somewhere, but I’m not bright enough to figure it out.

When you do eventually find the right function, doing anything other than a pure map from one component to another becomes an exercise in futility and magic pattern matching. There’s this thing called Safe you sometimes need to pattern match over, or produce, and it roughly corresponds to when you’re not guaranteed to have all of the components you asked for.

There are several other gotchas, too. For example, you can construct an entity by providing a tuple of the components you want to set. Unfortunately, due to apecs’ design, this thing must be type-safe. Which means you can’t construct one based on runtime data if you’re loading the particular components from e.g. a level editor. Well, you can, if you’re willing to play “existentialize the dictionary” and learn enough of the underlying library (and quirks of Haskell’s type inference algorithm) in order to convince the compiler what you’re doing is sound.

One final gotcha I’ll mention is that this magic tuple stuff is provided through typeclasses which are generated for the library by template haskell. Out of the box, you only get support for 5-tuples, which means you can’t easily construct entities with more components than that. Furthermore, changing the TH to generate more results in exponential growth of your compile times.

None of this is to say that apecs is bad software. It’s actually pretty brilliant in terms of its technology; I just feel as though its execution is lacking. It depends on a lot of tricks that I wouldn’t consider to be idiomatic Haskell, and its usability suffers as a consequence.


So with all of the above frustrations in mind, and a lot of time to kill in a Thai airport, I felt like I could make a better ECS. Better is obviously subjective for things like this, but I wanted to optimize it for being used by humans.

My explicit desiderata were:

  1. Keep boilerplate to a minimum.
  2. The user shouldn’t ever bump into any magic.

I think ecstasy knocks it out of the park on both of these fronts. Before diving into how it all works, let’s take a peek at how it’s used. We can define our components like so:

data EntWorld f = Entity
  { position :: Component f 'Field V2
  , velocity :: Component f 'Field V2
  , graphics :: Component f 'Field Picture
  , buffs    :: Component f 'Field [Buff]
  , notAffectedByGravity :: Component f 'Field ()
  } deriving (Generic)

type Entity = EntWorld 'FieldOf

That’s it! No template haskell, no typeclasses, no nothing. You get everything for free just out of this one deriving Generic statement. We’ll talk about how it works in just a second.

We can implement the velocity/position behavior as follows:

emap $ do
  p <- get position
  v <- get velocity
  pure defEnt'
    { position = Set $ p + v

Ecstasy clearly wins on minimizing the definition-side of boilerplate, but it seems like we’ve gained some when we actually go to use these things. This is true, but what we buy for that price is flexibility. In fact, emap is powerful enough to set, unset and keep components, as well as branch on whether or not a component is actually there. Compare this to the ten functions with different signatures and semantics that you need to keep in mind when working with apecs, and it feels like more of a win than the syntax feels like a loss.

So the question I’m sure you’re wondering is “how does any of this work?” And it’s a good question. Part of the reason I wrote this library was to get a feel for the approach and for working with GHC.Generics.

The idea comes from my colleague Travis Athougies and his mind-meltingly cool library beam. The trick is to get the library user to define one semantic type that makes sense in their domain, and then to use tricky type system extensions in order to corral it into everything you need. beam uses this approach to model database tables; ecstasy uses it to provide both a struct-of-arrays for your components, as well as just a struct corresponding to a single entity.

As you’d expect, the sorcery is inside of the Component type family. We can look at its definition:

type family Component (s :: StorageType)
                      (c :: ComponentType)
                      (a :: *) :: * where
  Component 'FieldOf  c      a = Maybe a
  Component 'SetterOf c      a = Update a

  Component 'WorldOf 'Field  a = IntMap a
  Component 'WorldOf 'Unique a = Maybe (Int, a)

This Component thing spits out different types depending on if you want a record for the entity ('FieldOf), an updater to change which components an entity has ('SetterOf), or the actual universe container to hold all of this stuff ('WorldOf). If we’re building an entity record, every component is a Maybe. If we’re describing a change to an entity, we use data Update a = Set a | Unset | Keep. If we want a place to store all of our entities, we generate an IntMap for every 'Field. There’s also support for adding components that are uniquely owned by a single entity, but we won’t get into that today.

The trick here is that we get the user to fill in the c :: ComponentType when they define the components, and ask them to keep the s :: StorageType polymorphic. The library then can instantiate your EntWorld f with different StorageTypes in order to pull out the necessary types for actually plumbing everything together.

We use the Generic derivation on EntWorld in order to allow ourselves to construct the underlying machinery. For example, when you’re defining an entity, you don’t want to be able to Keep the old value of its components, since it didn’t have any to begin with. We can use our Generic constraint in order to generate a function toSetter :: EntWorld 'FieldOf -> EntWorld 'SetterOf which takes an entity record and turns it into an entity update request, so that we don’t actually need special logic to construct things. The Generic constraint also helps generate default values of the EntWorld 'WorldOf and other things, so that you don’t need to write out any boilerplate at the value level in order to use these things.

The actual how-to-do of the GHC.Generics is outside of the scope of today’s post, but you can read through the source code if you’re curious.