Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 1 - Overview
by (07 May 1999)

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Okay. You want a scripting language for your engine. Why? Because they're just really cool, and everybody has 'em these days.

First, decide what kind of scripting you want; Henry Robinson already wrote an introduction to the different kinds scripting (be sure to read it if you haven't already). In this tutorial series, I'll be talking about a compiler / virtual machine system like UnrealScript.

Next, you need to know two things: how to implement such a scripting engine, and some reasons why a scripting engine is not only cool but actually useful.

Here's what I made up:
  • Useful new language features like states, latent code, etc.
  • A sandbox environment that can't crash the game engine
  • Being able to create game content without knowledge of the engine internals and without having to recompile the engine
  • Fully platform-independent script code
  • However, there are also drawbacks:
  • Relatively slow - scripts run at least 15 times slower than executable code
  • Limiting - scripts can't be used to create entirely new visual effects (partly because of the lack of speed).
  • People creating game content have to learn a new language
  • Of course, we don't let those stop us; we had already made up our minds. Now, where to start?

    Required Reading

    I started when Unreal hadn't been released for very long. I was browsing their tech site and found the UnrealScript reference document. I had heard of UnrealScript of course, but didn't really know what it was. I read the document and thought the idea of a script language was really cool. I wanted to write my own, and link it to a game engine so that the whole world could easily create new content for my game.

    Fortunately, I got a class in Compiler Construction that semester, and as a practical assignment we had to implement a VERY simple Pascal compiler. I started working in parallel (OK, semi-parallel) on my own, better, compiler. I already had a "working" version which accepted a small subset of C, but I coded it in about 2 weeks, and the internal structure was pretty awful.. I had to completely redesign the whole thing. I'm sure you've had a similar experience at some point in your life.. So I'm still working on this, and learning a lot about compilers while doing it.

    But, let's get to a little useful info.

    First of all, I advise anyone who's going to program a compiler to get the Dragon book. Most of you (especially CS students like me) probably know this one already. For those who don't, I'm talking about Compilers - Principles, Techniques and Tools by Aho, Sethi and Ullman (ISBN 0-201-10194-7). It has a picture of a dragon on the front, hence the name "Dragon book". Believe me, anyone who knows anything about compilers has read this book.

    The book hasn't changed since 1986; this is because the underlying techniques of compiler design practically haven't changed since the 1960's. Of course, this book doesn't cover processor-specific optimizations, but there are other books for that. Besides, we want to compile to bytecode, not machine code.

    Second, if you're looking for a quick overview of implementing a bytecode script language, check out this article on GamaSutra, which is a very readable story of how the Jedi Knight script language was implemented. I'll cover everything that's in there too, but it's still an interesting read.

    What We Need

    Basically a compiler consists of the following components:
  • A symbol table, which contains all the symbols and information about type, scope, etc.
  • A lexical analyzer, which is a function that converts a character stream (i.e. the source file) into tokens (i.e. keywords, operators, etc.)
  • A parser, which takes the token stream and builds a syntax tree from it.
  • A semantic checker, which checks the syntax tree for semantic errors
  • An itermediate code generator, which converts the syntax tree into intermediate code
  • An optimizer (optional) which optimizes the intermediate code
  • A code generator, which generates bytecode from the intermediate code
  • Last but not least, the virtual machine on which the bytecode is to be executed.

  • If you have programmed all these components, together they will form a complete scripting system.

    Is That All?

    Feeling a little overwhelmed? About to decide that maybe scripting isn't so cool after all and DLL's are really the only way to go? No need; I will be talking about each of the components in detail soon and most of them aren't really that hard. Creating a complete scripting engine *is* a lot of work, though, and structuring your code is essential.

    In the remaining parts of this tutorial we will develop a very simple compiler / virtual machine system. It will be nowhere near a full scripting language, but it will implement all the components listed above. I'm thinking about a simple language to manipulate strings.

    For now, just check out the links and let the above sink in. All comments are greatly appreciated by the way!

    Oh, I've reinstated the quote at the end of tutorials (like Denthor used to do). Since I'm not funny enough to think of them myself, I will be quoting from some Wholly Remarkable Books. I'm sure you know which ones I'm talking about. If not, you should find out.

    Jan Niestadt


    "But the plans were on display ..."
    "On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
    "That's the display department."
    "With a torch."
    "Ah, well the lights had probably gone."
    "So had the stairs."
    "But look, you found the notice didn't you?"
    "Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard."

    HHG 1:1

    Article Series:
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 1 - Overview
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 2 - The Lexical Analyzer
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 3 - The Parser
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 4 - The Symbol Table & Syntax Tree
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 5 - The Semantic Checker & Intermediate Code Generator
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 6 - Optimization
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 7 - The Virtual Machine
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 8 - Executable Code
  • Implementing A Scripting Engine - Part 9 - Advanced Subjects

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