Fibers: Coroutines in Finch

July 13, 2010 code cpp finch game-dev language

With this surprisingly straightforward commit, I’ve accomplished something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: I’ve implemented coroutines in a programming language. I call them fibers in Finch, mainly for brevity, but the idea is the same. Since I think coroutines are both really cool and not very well known, I thought it would be worthwhile to show how they work in Finch and why I added them.

If you like textbook definitions, here’s one for you:

Fibers are a lightweight cooperative multi-tasking construct that let you swich between multiple flows of execution.

If you’re familiar with threads this might explain it better: Imagine a system where all of your threads run at the highest priority so that when one thread is running, all others get zero CPU time. In that scenario, the only way another thread can execute is if the running one explicitly calls sleep(). Now imagine that a call to sleep() requires an argument: the next thread to take over when this one sleeps. Now you’ve got the idea.

Some Code

I can only read about two paragraphs in a blog post without code before I get bored, so here’s some:

' create a fiber
fiber <- Fiber new: {
    writeLine: "fiber started"
    Fiber yield
    writeLine: "fiber resumed"
}

' transfer control from this fiber (the main one) to it
writeLine: "main started"
fiber run
writeLine: "main resumed"
fiber run
writeLine: "done"

If you run this, it outputs:

main started
fiber started
main resumed
fiber resumed
done

The two fibers interleave together like dance partners. There are three important steps in this tango. First off, we need to create a fiber. The fiber constructor, Fiber new: takes one argument, the block that makes up the body of the fiber and returns a new fiber. Note that it doesn’t start the fiber running. The new fiber is just standing off the dancefloor patiently waiting to catch the eye of a partner.

Once you have some fibers, there are two methods to transfer control between them. The first one is run:

someFiberObj run

When you send that message to a fiber object, it starts running and the current fiber pauses.

The sister to run is yield:

Fiber yield

That pauses the current fiber and transfers control back to the fiber that ran this one.

The only difference between run and yield is that run is called directly on a fiber object to control which fiber to switch to where yield implicitly switches to whatever fiber previously started this one. (In fact, if you look at the code, you’ll see they’re both implemented in terms of a single switchToFiber: primitive.)

Communication

That’s the basic system, but there’s one more handy feature mixed in: you can pass data between fibers when you switch control. In addition to Fiber yield, there is also Fiber yield: which takes a single argument. The value passed to that will be sent back to the resuming fiber as the return value from the call to run. An example will really help here:

fiber <- Fiber new: {
  Fiber yield: "a marmot"
}

result <- fiber run
writeLine: result

That will print out “a marmot”, as you’d hope. When you call run, the time stops in that fiber. It doesn’t resume until the fiber you ran yields. When the clock starts again, the call to run finally completes, returning the value passed to yield:.

This may remind you of generators in Python or iterators in C#. Coroutines are a superset of both of those, so now Finch has generators too. Unlike generators or iterators, communication also works going the other direction. You can pass data to a fiber when you run it like this:

fiber <- Fiber new: {
  result <- Fiber yield
  writeLine: result
}

fiber run
fiber run: "a dingo"

An extra call to run is needed here at the beginning. That runs the fiber up to the first yield, which returns control back. Like in our previous example, time stops for the fiber in the middle of its call to yield. The second run: resumes the fiber, passing in a value which becomes the return value for the yield method.

That probably sounds a little confusing. Play around with it a bit and it’ll make more sense.

Why is this Cool?

The reason I like coroutines is that they’re a perfect fit for simulating multiple entities simultaneously. And by that I mean games. In most games, you’ve got a bunch of stuff going on at the same time: multiple enemies walking around, the player, various projectiles and special effects, etc.

The way that’s typically implemented is the game loop gives each actor a tiny slice of time each turn. Each entity will have an Update() that takes one step and then returns, so a monster that just patrols back and forth, waiting a bit at each end will have something like:

Patroller::Update() {
    switch (state_) {
        case WALK_LEFT:
            x_ -= WALK_SPEED;
            if (x_ <= MIN_X) {
                state_ = WAIT_LEFT;
                wait_ = WAIT_FRAMES;
            }
            break;

        case WAIT_LEFT:
            wait_--;
            if (wait_ == 0) state_ = WALK_RIGHT;
            break;

        case WALK_RIGHT:
            x_ += WALK_SPEED;
            if (x_ >= MAX_X) {
                state_ = WAIT_RIGHT;
                wait_ = WAIT_FRAMES;
            }
            break;

        case WAIT_RIGHT:
            wait_--;
            if (wait_ == 0) state_ = WALK_LEFT;
            break;
    }
}

You can see that the logic has to be split up into separate pieces and a bunch of data (state_, wait_) has to be pushed into member variables so that it persists across frames. It’s harder to tell what the intent of the behavior is even in this absolutely trivial example. Imagine what it’s like when the entity is trying to walk a complex path or follow some strategy.

If your system supports coroutines, you’ve got a much easier way to do this: simply spin up a fiber for each entity and have them yield once per turn. Our above behavior turns into:

Patroller :: behavior {
    ' walk left
    from: MaxX to: MinX do: {|x|
        _x <- x
        Fiber yield
    }

    ' wait
    from: 1 to: WaitTime do: { Fiber yield }

    ' walk right
    from: MinX to: MaxX do: {|x|
        _x <- x
        Fiber yield
    }

    ' wait
    from: 1 to: WaitTime do: { Fiber yield }
}

Even better, because fibers maintain their own entire callstacks, you can switch between them even from within other function calls. This lets us refactor code that uses them into smaller functions, so the above would likely be something like:

Patroller :: (
    behavior {
        self walkFrom: MaxX to: MinX
        self wait: WaitTime
        self walkFrom: MinX to: MaxX
        self wait: WaitTime
    }

    walkFrom: a to: b {
        from: a to: b do: {|x|
            _x <- x
            Fiber yield
        }
    }

    wait: frames {
        from: 1 to: WaitTime do: { Fiber yield }
    }
)

Now our top-level code for patrolling is practically pseudocode for what we want the entity to do. Pretty swell!