A support library for prototype-based programming in Lua
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The prototype-based style of object-oriented programming can be fairly naturally implemented in Lua by means of using the __index metamethod. This library provides a few functions that support prototype-based programming in Lua in a straightforward way to keep things clear and simple.

Guide and usage examples

You can set a given table a to be a prototype of an arbitrary table b:

local a = { aaa = 111 }
local b = { bbb = 222 }
setprototype(b, a)

The function setprototype() modifies the metatable of the table b (or creates and sets a metatable for b if it does not exist yet) so that the table a becomes the __index metamethod. It also sets the __newindex metamethod to an internal service function that tracks indexing assignments to the table b and dispatches them to existing keys in the table a (all the new keys that are not present in b nor in a are created in the table b as per normal).

Now we can consider the table b as an object that has two members: field bbb and field aaa. It consists of the two sub-objects: the part that is the original table b itself with the field bbb, and another one disposed as the first item of the prototype chain - the table from the variable a with the field aaa. The table b is the most outer table of the object (the most outer sub-object) and the table a is meant to be the prototype chain (consisting of a single item) attached to it.

Instead of setprototype() you can use the setcowprototype() function, which means to set "copy-on-write" prototype. This function is the same as the former one but it does't touch the __newindex metamethod. In this case the tables building up the prototype chain can be considered as read only, and every key from these tables is automatically copied into the most outer table of the object before performing a first assignment operation to the key. Keys and values in prototype sub-objects themselves remain unaffected.

Normally, we will define some function that creates and initializes new object instances. Let's call this function the object constructor. You can save the reference to the constructor function which a certain object instance has been created with into that object metatable by using the setconstructor() function.

function A(_aaa)  -- constructor for the objects of class A
  local self = { aaa = _aaa or 111 }
  setconstructor(self, A)
  return self

The function setconstructor() saves its second argument in the field constructor of the metatable for its first argument (the metatable is created and attached if it doesn't exist yet).

function B(_aaa, _bbb)  -- constructor for the objects of class B "derived from the class A"
  local base = A(_aaa)
  local self = { bbb = _bbb or 222 }
  setprototype(self, base)
  setconstructor(self, B)
  return self

local b = B(1, 2)
function C(_ccc)  -- constructor for the objects of class C "prototyped from the object b" (written in less verbose manner)
  return setconstructor(
      setcowprototype({ ccc = _ccc or 3 }, b),

After that we can at any time apply the getconstructor() function for obtaining the object constructor from the instance to be able to create a new instance of the same object class and to use the same variant of constructing function, if there are several ones for that class.

local c = C()

local make_b = getconstructor(b)
local b1, b2 = make_b(), make_b()

local make_c = getconstructor(c)
local c1, c2 = make_c(), make_c()

Note that according to definitions of our example constructor functions, instances b, b1 and b2 will have distinct sub-objects on every level of their prototype chains. Whereas, in contrast, instances c, c1 and c2 will have distinct parts only for the most outer sub-objects in their structure and three have the very same single table from the variable b as the first item in their prototype chains which is also being set as copy-on-write with setcowprototype().

The function getconstructor() is just:

function getconstructor(_object)
  return rawget(getmetatable(_object) or {}, "constructor")

And there is a function getprototype() which is just:

function getprototype(_object)
  return rawget(getmetatable(_object) or {}, "__index")

To iterate through the prototype chain use the prototypes() function. For example the following code prints all sub-objects that the object c consists of:

print(0, c)  -- the most outer table
for i, p in prototypes(c) do  -- tables in the prototype chain
  print(i, p)

There is also the memberpairs() function that returns a function iterating through all object members (including all sub-objects). The iterator returns a key-value pair (as being actually returned by the standard next() function) and the table the pair is originate from as its third return value.

That's basically all.

The full list of library functions and what they return
  • setprototype(object, prototype) --> object
  • setcowprototype(object, prototype) --> object
  • getprototype(object) --> object prototype
  • prototypes(object) --> iterator for the object prototype chain --> index in the chain, sub-object
  • setconstructor(object, constructor) --> object
  • getconstructor(object) --> object constructor function
  • memberpairs(object) --> object (including all sub-objects) member iterator --> key, value, sub-object that the pair belongs to
Special cases
  • Unsetting a prototype can be done by specifying the nil vlaue as a second argument to setprototype() or setcowprototype() functions. The __index metamethod will be set to nil and in case if the __newindex metamethod was previously assigned to an internal service handler by the setprototype() function, it also will be cleared.
  • Removing the constructor reference can be performed by passing the nil value for the second argument to the setconstructor() function.
  • Cycles in the prototype chains are detected early by setprototype()/setcowprototype() functions, which prevents unpredictable rising the 'loop in gettable' error on attempt of indexing access to nonpresent keys as well as running the __newindex metamethod into an infinite loop on indexing assignment to such a keys.
  • For the objects composed with setprototype() function, removing object members by assigning nil values to them are properly tracked: on a new assignment to the deleted keys in the subsequent, they will appear in the proper sub-object within the prototype chain - in that sub-object which they belonged to prior to be removed rather than in the most outer table as any other newly created keys. Thus, every sub-object continue to possess its members which is intuitively expectable object behavior and is similar to as it in other fully-featured OOP languages. The __newindex metamethod handler set by the setprototype() function implements this feature by utilizing and maintaining a dedicated list of niled keys. When necessary these lists are allocated in the sub-object metatables with a knowingly unique key.
Further documentation

There is nothing else worth to be mentioned about, see the source file - oop.lua to get more in details. The code is simple and will tell more than any sort of descriptions. As a general guideline just remember that the library functions don't modify tables themselves in any way, don't modify metatables except as described above and don't remove them even if they appear to have become empty and were actually created and set by these functions previously.

-- Copyright (c) 2016 Mikhail Usenko michaelus@tochka.ru. All rights reserved. GNU General Public License.