C++ Enumeration Reflection

Welcome to the third post in a series of blog posts about how to implement a custom game engine in C++. As reference I’ll be using my own open source game engine SEL. Please refer to its source code for implementation details not covered in this article. Files of interest are EnumData.h, Enum.cpp and Enum.h.

Crazy Viking Studios

Lets thank the Crazy Viking Studios guys for their generous contribution in knowledge on this topic! One day as a student I emailed them about their enumeration editing in their awesome editor for Volgarr the Viking. They responded with a bunch of source code in a demo! The techniques here have been learned from Taron their programmer.


Enumerations in C++ are a pretty nice feature. They provide type safety and a very readable way to name a lot of various types of constants. However there could be so much more added on top of enumerations in C++ to make extremely useful.

Lets take a trip through our imagination and imagine a game editor. In this editor you can create arbitrary constants with a name and associated integral value. This would be great for some sort of scripting or game logic.

This here can be implemented in C++ (during coding time as a compile-time constant) through enumerations. However there are some features that can be added to this to allow an editor to manipulate things:

  • Add new entries
  • Modify existing entries
  • Delete entries

Basic Enumeration Editing

In order for an editor to manipulate this information within a C or C++ file some run-time memory is required to store a representation of the actual enumerations in code. Data tables (structs) will work well for this. Lets imagine a structure to contain one of these enumerations; we’ll need string representations of all of the enumeration entries:

If an Enum instance were created to contain identical string representations of the entries with the Spells enum, then a constant-time conversion of enumeration to string could be achieved just by indexing the Enum vector with a value.

Converting a string back to an enumeration would best be done with a small hash table. This will keep string to enum conversions const-time.

Much to be Desired

This is all fine and good, however if a user creates a new entry as a string this won’t update the actual C++ enumeration entries -new entries only exist until the editor shuts off. Additionally there isn’t an easy way to lookup a particular Enum struct. It would be nice to be able to lookup an Enum struct in various ways, such as by string name or template type. It would also be cool to be able to serialize enumerations to/from file.

It might be fairly simple to actually modify the source code containing a particular enumeration in C++ whenever an entry is modified, deleted or added. This would let programmers actually use enumerations created in an editor within their code (after a recompile). It is also possible to hookup the new entries to be loaded in the Enum struct as a string literal.


As you can imagine a lot of manual labor is going to be needed in order to upkeep all of this crazy editing and modifying of enumerations. Some generalization and automation is needed to keep dev-work at an absolute minimum.

This is the time when I reference an old project I created to demonstrate a simple idea for serialization in C. The trick is use a source file and include it multiple times with various macro definitions. The source file to be included fills out the macros, but the macros are interpreted differently depending on when it was included. This allows you to write data files and interpreters using the preprocessor.

This is exactly what we need for building up some automated reflection and editing of enumerations.

Imagine a data file like so (a header without multiple inclusion guards and some macro invocations):

Lets take this data file and create a normal enumeration:

As you can see the macros from the data file are going to interpret the data as an enumeration. It is important to just always #undef all the macros in case they were previously defined.

After the preprocessor runs and the macros expand we will end up with something like:

Now the key part comes with defining the macros again to interpret the data in an all new way. Here’s an example to automate the creation of the Enum struct containing string literals:

The idea here is to construct an array of const char * literals and pass them to the Enum struct’s constructor. The struct can loop over them until the sentinel NULL value is found. When expanded by the preprocessor this file might look like:

While the Enum struct is looping over the literals passed to it in the constructor, it can also be adding the strings to a hash table to lookup appropriate indices.

Editor Support

Now that a great scheme for automation of generating the actual enumeration data is setup, all that is required is to make sure that an editor can easily find an appropriate C++ file to modify when entries are modified. My solution was just to cram all enumerations into a single C++ file. This C++ is detailed with a nice comment saying something like: WARNING: This file is auto-generated by the Enum Editor.

This actually works pretty well but has a single drawback: editing an enumeration causes a global recompile of the project. There are no separate namespaces or naming schemes in my own implementation, meaning that each enumeration has to be unique to avoid compilation errors.

From here it’s just a matter of writing to your C++ data file.

Tree Heirarchy

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to say “This enum is a subset of this entry”? That might have sounded confusing, here’s an example:

The idea is to allow each enumeration entry to contain an enumeration by creating a tree hierarchy.

This would be great for all sorts of game logic or general organization! It’s also possible to implement a really fast IsA function, so you could go if(type->IsA( Dragon )). Implementing this would just be a matter of traversing the tree hierarchy.

Enumeration Features

I implemented a bunch of rag-tag features in my game engine SEL and would like to cover a couple of the more useful ones. Just take a quick look at an example declaration of the Enum struct:

I’m sure most readers can imagine how these methods are useful and how to implement them.

However looking up a specific enumeration by name (useful for macros) or by template type is something that is a little harder to implement. Please see SEL for a working reference on how to accomplish these. The idea is to use the multiple-inclusion trick on the data file to define some template specializations.

Serialization and Introspection Registration

Serializing enumerations should be really straightforward for both binary and string formats. For binary the numerical representations can be utilized. And string format uses the string arrays constructed at compile-time.

The rest is just a matter of writing some string to/from file routines.

Some introspection techniques rely on the user to register various types within the reflection system. In this case it turns out this registration can also be automated with multiple-file inclusion on the data file! Just define a routine to register each enumeration type. There’s not much to it!


I certainly hope this helps someone out there! Please do comment or ask questions right here on the post, I always enjoy reading them.


4 thoughts on “C++ Enumeration Reflection

  1. Brian

    It really bugs me how you use, “automated reflection”.  If you have to modify the code for reflection to work, it is by no means automatic.  You have to modify every enum inside of your code to utilize this.  How is that automatic?

    1. Randy Gaul Post author

      Well the only way to create an enumeration is to manually add it. There’s no way code can create named enumerations automatically since it’s by definition a human-created symbol. However the automated part is in that you get a lot of benefits by simply adding a new entry or creating a new enumeration. There is no extra manual work, not that there’s no manual work at all.

      And I’m pretty sure I say “automated tasks”, not “automated reflection”. Sure some parts of reflection are automated but most of my open source stuff is manual registration.

      If you want to rid yourself of registration tasks you’ll have to use some form scanner. I’ve heard of C++ file scanning and pdb scanning. Both create type information databases off-line you can pull info from during run-time.

  2. Brian

    And I’m pretty sure I say “automated tasks”, not “automated reflection”.

    Actually, you do. :p

    This is exactly what we need for building up some automated reflection and editing of enumerations.

    1. Randy Gaul Post author

      Well yeah, like I said in this case the reflection is automated, albeit at the cost of changing the enumeration format. Most of the registration I open source is not automated, but in this case it easily can be.


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