WebGL game of life

In my continued efforts to learn webGL, I wanted to make an engine for conway’s game of life. Click on this post for final result!

WebGL Game of Life Demo

You can interact with the game state (even while its running) by clicking and dragging on the canvas. Pressing play will automatically run the game at the specified frame rate, which can be changed by entering a new value and pressing the fps button. You can also randomize the game state or clear it entirely!

You can also resize the canvas by dragging the lower right corner or double click to enter fullscreen mode. You can use space to toggle play/pause, + to increase fps, - to decrease fps, r to randomize, c to clear and s to step.

You can find the source code for this project here: https://github.com/aneeshdurg/webgl_game_of_life

What is conway’s game of life?

Conway’s game of life is a set of rules for a cellular automata created by mathematician John Conway. It’s got some neat properties and is possibly turing complete, but the only important thing for this project is that it looks cool.

The rules apply to a grid of “cells” which can either be dead or alive. The cells effectively obey the following three rules:

  1. A living cell will stay alive if and only if it has 2 or three neighbors
  2. A dead cell will come to life if it has 3 neighbors
  3. All cells not covered by cases 1 and 2 will turn dead or remain dead.

How does it work?

As a first step, I looked for a way to build the user interaction I wanted - when you click it should turn a tile “on”. To do this I found this stackoverflow answer that has everything I needed, so I reimplemented the code in that answer to get a good understanding of how it works. Essentially, we can use a Uint8Array in javascript to create a texture, and by setting values in that array and rebinding that array to the texture, we can update what is rendered. The one tricky thing to note here is scaling. We’ll need to convert the coordinates from the canvas to coordinates in the texture, keeping in mind that a single pixel in the texture corresponds to some “block” of pixels in the canvas. I later found out that this process could have been done a little better had I used webgl2 since it exposes better functions for dealing with textures.

Next I needed some way to actually update the state of the game. Here I used a second canvas that’s hidden from the display, and by attaching a framebuffer to that canvas I was able to implement the automaton rules as a fragment shader using the code below:

precision highp float;
precision highp int;
precision mediump float;
precision mediump int;

uniform sampler2D u_texture;

#define CANVAS_WIDTH   640.0
#define CANVAS_HEIGHT  480.0

uniform float u_tile_width;
uniform float u_tile_height;

vec2 textureSize = vec2(128.0, 128.0);

neighborState(int x_off, int y_off)
    // Can look at any channel except alpha here
    return texture2D(
        (gl_FragCoord.xy + vec2(float(x_off), float(y_off))) / textureSize).r;

isGEq(float a, float b)
    return sign(sign(a - b) + 1.0);

isEq(float a, float b)
    return isGEq(a, b) * isGEq(b, a);

void main() {
    float gol_score =
        neighborState(-1, -1) + neighborState(0, -1) + neighborState(1, -1) +
        neighborState(-1,  0) +                        neighborState(1,  0) +
        neighborState(-1,  1) + neighborState(0,  1) + neighborState(1,  1);

    float my_state = neighborState(0, 0);
    vec4 dead = vec4(0.0, 0.0, 0.0, 1.0);
    vec4 alive = vec4(1.0, 1.0, 1.0, 1.0);

    gl_FragColor =
        my_state * (
            isGEq(gol_score, 4.0) * dead + // >= 4 neighbors => dead
            isGEq(1.0, gol_score) * dead + // <= 1 neighbors => dead
            isGEq(gol_score, 2.0) * isGEq(3.0, gol_score) * alive)
        + (1.0 - my_state) * (
            isEq(gol_score, 3.0) * alive +
            (1.0 - isEq(gol_score, 3.0)) * dead);

Then I just needed to read the pixels from the framebuffer texture back into a javascript array and make the rendering canvas use the new pixels as input.

That’s pretty much the whole story! I learned a lot about framebuffers and how one could use multiple shaders at once. I think my implementation is still messy and inefficient in some places. I think it’s probably possible to do thing using only one webgl instance and swapping between two framebuffers. I’m not sure how the interaction with the DOM events would work in that case. Aside from that I think there’s a few more bells and whistles I could add, or even customizable rule sets. Maybe I could even use what I learnt from writing a hexel shader to generalize this to create automatons out of any tesselating shape. For now, it’s good enough and it looks pretty cool!

Written on March 8, 2020