Program Initialization

The system library provides a generic, modular initialization mechanism that lets you write snippets of start-up code that the library automatically invokes at the appropriate time.

There are two phases of initialization: pre-initialization, which runs during the compilation process to allow the program to do any time-consuming preparation of static data structures, saving start-up time when users run the program; and run-time initialization, which lets the program set up the initial UI environment and attach to external system resources.


When you compile your program, after the linker finishes building the .t3 file, the compiler runs the "preinit" phase. This step involves running the program in a stripped-down version of the interpreter (which works the same as the full interpreter, except that it omits most of the user interface intrinsics). During this step, the system sets a special internal flag that tells you that pre-initialization is under way.

The point of the preinit phase is to let you set up your program's objects and other data structures in their initial states. Since this step happens during compilation, you can get any time-consuming set-up work out of the way here, before users ever see your program - users won't have to wait for the work to be repeated each time they run the program, since it's taken care of in advance.


The best way to write preinit code is to define PreinitObject instances.

PreinitObject is a class defined in the system library. During the preinit phase, the system finds every object of type PreinitObject and calls its execute() method.

myInitObj: PreinitObject
      // do some initialization work...

You can use PreinitObject as a mix-in class, combining it with other classes in an object's list of superclasses. This lets you define an object's initialization code directly with the object.

You can define any number of PreinitObject instances. This lets you modularize your initialization code - you can create a new object each time you have a different item you need to initialize.

By default, the order in which the library initializes PreinitObject instances is arbitrary. However, an object's initialization code might in some cases depend upon another object having been initialized first. In these cases, an object can define the execBeforeMe property to a list of the objects that must be initialized before it is; the library will ensure that all of the listed objects are initialized first. In addition, an object can define the execAfterMe property list to a list of the objects that must be initialized after it is.

For example, to define an object that cannot be initialized until after another object, called "myLibInit", has been initialized, we would write this:

myInitObj: PreinitObject
  execute() { /* my initialization code */ }
  execBeforeMe = [myLibInit]

Deferred preinit in debug builds

Note that if when you compile in "debug" mode, the compiler defers preinit until you run the program normally. It does this so that you have a chance to step through the preinit process using the debugger. If the compiler ran preinit even in a debug build, there'd be no way for you to step through the process in the debugger, since the whole process would already have come and gone by the time you got into the debugger.

Note that preinit does still occur even in debug builds - it just gets deferred until you run the program, rather than running during compilation. This doesn't change anything except the timing. In particular, everything still happens in the same order. You don't have to worry about writing conditional code to deal with any differences; as far as your program is concerned, it shouldn't matter.

There's one small additional detail worth mentioning: the link between the debug build mode and the timing of the pre-initialization step is only the default, and you can override it if you want using a compiler option. The t3make option "-nopre" tells the compiler not to run pre-initialization (thereby deferring it until run-time), even for a non-debug build; the "-pre" option tells the compiler to run pre-initialization as part of the compilation process, even for a debug build.

Preinit and Restart

The system library's start-up code includes a framework for handling "restarting." It's traditional in text adventures to include a RESTART command that starts the game over from the beginning (and to offer the option to restart when the player encounters a dead end in the story). The VM itself provides a low-level function that resets all of the non-transient objects in the game to their initial states, just as they were when the game was first loaded into the interpreter, but that only goes so far; to start the action over from the beginning, we still need to jump back to the game's entrypoint and start running it from the beginning. The default start-up code helps with this by providing a "catch" handler for a special exception class, RestartSignal. You can throw this signal from anywhere within the game, and the default start-up code will catch it, reset objects to their initial state, and start running the game over from the beginning.

As part of restarting the game, the system library automatically invokes the pre-initialization step, if necessary. It's necessary if pre-initialization ran when you first loaded the game into the interpreter. This means that each PreinitObject will be executed again immediately after each restart if it ran on the initial load. Likewise, the start-up initialization will run again, so each InitObject will be executed.

Note that pre-initialization will occur on each restart if and only if it occurs when you initially load the game, and that happens if and only if pre-initialization didn't run during compilation. That means that if you build the game in debug mode, or if you explicitly defer pre-initialization to run-time, then pre-initialization will happen at initial load and at each restart.

Derived information

The most common type of task to perform during pre-initialization is setting up "derived" property settings. A derived setting is one that can be determined entirely from some other information; the new setting thus doesn't actually contain any new information, but just stores the original information in a different format.

Derived settings might seem pointless: why would you want to store the same information twice? Indeed, storing derived information is the source of a great many programming errors, since related pieces of information can get "out of sync" with one other if one is not careful to update all of the pieces every time any of the pieces changes. Despite this, it's often difficult to find another way of doing something, so derived data show up all the time in practical programming situations.

A good text-adventure example of derived information is the way object location information is stored. The typical game programmer assigns a location to each object in the game; we might do this with a "location" property:

book: Item
  location = bookcase

Clearly, if some code in your program were handed a reference to this "book" object, and you wanted to know the object that contained the book, you'd just evaluate the object's location property:

objCont = obj.location;

Now, what if you were handed a reference to the "bookcase" object, and you wanted to find out what objects the bookcase contains?

One solution would be to check each object that you think might appear in the bookcase:

booklist = [];
if (book.location == bookcase) booklist += book;
if (bookEnd.location == bookcase) booklist += bookEnd;

Apart from being incredibly tedious, this is a terribly inflexible way to program. If you added one more object to your game, you'd have to add a line to this code. And just imagine how bad it would be if you wanted to find out what the bookcase contains in more than one place in your program.

A more flexible, and less tedious, solution would be to use the firstObj() and nextObj() functions to iterate over all of the objects in the game:

booklist = [];
for (local obj = firstObj() ; obj != nil ; obj = nextObj(obj))
   if (obj.location == bookcase)
   booklist += obj.location;

You clearly wouldn't want to write that too many times, but it's not so bad to write it once and put it in a function. Better yet, you could make this a method of a low-level class, and rather than asking whether the location is "bookcase" you could ask if it's "self", and thus you'd have a method you could call on any object to produce a list of its contents.

The only problem with this approach is performance. If we had to run through all of the objects in the game every time we wanted to know what's in a container, our game would become slower and slower as it grows. It is reasonable to expect that we would want to know the contents of an object frequently, too, so this code would be a good candidate for optimization.

Performance is probably the primary reason that derived information shows up so frequently in real-world programming. We will often construct a data structure that represents some information in a manner that is very efficient for some particular use, but is terrible for other uses - our "location" property above is a good example. When we encounter another way that we will frequently use the same data, and this other way can't make efficient use of the original data structure, we often find that the best approach is to create another parallel data structure that contains the same information in a different form.

So, how could we make it more efficient to find the contents of a container? The easiest way would be to store a "contents" list for each container. So, if asked to list the contents of an object, we'd simply get its "contents" property, and we'd be done. There'd be no need to look at any object's "location" property, since the "contents" property would give us all of the information we need.

One problem with this approach is that it would make a lot of extra work if we had to type in both the "location" and the "contents" properties for every object:

book: Item
  location = bookcase

bookcase: Container, FixedItem
  location = library
  contents = [book, bookEnd]

Not only would it be tedious to type in a "contents" list for every object, but it would be prone to errors, especially as we added objects to the game.

The solution we're coming to is probably obvious by this point. Rather than forcing the programmer to type in both a "location" and a "contents" property, we could observe that both properties actually contain the same information in different forms, and hence we could automatically derive one from the other, and store the results. The programmer would only have to type in one of them. The easier of the two, for the programmer, would seem to be "location", so let's make "contents" be the derived property. During program initialization, we'd go through all of the objects in the game and construct each objects "contents" list, using the same code we wrote earlier.

The difference between what we were doing earlier and what we're proposing now is that, this time, we plan to store the derived information. Each time we construct a list of objects that an object contains, we'll store the list in the "contents" property for the object. So, without adding any typing, we'll end up with the same "contents" declaration that we made manually for "bookcase" above. We'll construct this contents list once, during program initialization, for every object in the game.

There's another detail we must attend to: each time we change an object's location, we must at the same time change the "contents" property of its original container and of its new container. The best way to do this is to define a method that moves an object to a new container, and updates all of the necessary properties. We could call this method "moveInto":

   /* remove myself from the old location's contents */
   if (location != nil)
      location.contents -= self;

   /* add myself to the new location's contents */
   if (newLocation != nil)
      newLocation.contents += self;

   /* update my location property */
   location = newLocation;

As long as we're always careful to move objects by calling their moveInto() method, and we never update any object's "location" or "contents" properties directly, all of the properties will remain coordinated.

Many programmers who work with object-oriented languages develop a habit of using "accessor" and "mutator" methods when accessing an object's properties, rather than evaluating the object's properties directly. An "accessor" is simply a method that returns the value of a property, and a "mutator" is a method that assigns a new value to a property. The advantage of using accessors and mutators as a matter of course becomes clear when we consider our moveInto() example above: these methods help keep all of the internal book-keeping code for an object in one place, so that outside code doesn't have to worry about it.

Run-time initialization

The library also defines a class called InitObject, which works the same way as PreinitObject, but is used during normal program start-up rather than pre-initialization. Just before the standard start-up code calls your main() routine, it invokes the execute() method on each instance of InitObject.

As with PreinitObject's, you can use the execBeforeMe and execAfterMe properties in your InitObject instances to control the order of initialization.

The reason for a separate run-time initialization mechanism is that there are some kinds of initializations that can't be done in advance, because they depend on the actual run-time environment. For example, you might want to do something special that depends on the version of the interpreter that's being used, or you might want to customize something based on the run-time operating system. You might want to do something in the user interface, such as create some banner windows.

Low-level preinit

After linking is complete, when not compiling for debugging, t3make calls the main entrypoint function (_main), just as it would for normal execution. However, the system sets a special internal flag that indicates that it's performing pre-initialization rather than a normal run of the program. You can access this flag via the t3GetVMPreinitMode() function in the "t3vm" function set; this function returns true if pre-initialization is taking place, nil during normal execution.

Note that the difference between the debug and non-debug build modes does not mean that you have to write your code differently for the two modes. Pre-initialization runs in both types of builds, and runs in the same sequence in both types of builds; as far as your program is concerned, there's no difference at all. The only difference is where the pre-initialization step is carried out. Here's a summary of the sequence of events in the two cases:

Normal (non-debug) builds:

Debug builds:

In both cases, the sequence of events that your program sees is the same: compile, pre-initialize, run.

Notes for TADS 2 Users

With TADS 2, pre-initialization was accomplished via a user-defined function called preinit(). The TADS 2 compiler called this after completing compilation to give the game a chance to do its compile-time setup work.

TADS 3 doesn't use the preinit() function, but it has a corresponding mechanism. Instead of putting all of your your pre-initialization code in a single function, you can create any number of PreinitObject objects, each with its own bit of code. This lets you create nicely modular initialization code, with each initializer grouped with the object definitions it pertains to.

Similarly, the TADS 2 init() function is replaced in TADS 3 with InitObject objects, which make it easy to write modular run-time initialization code.