Serializing JavaScript Objects

This year I’m participating in the annual Seven Day Roguelike Challenge, where participants are attempting to create their own fully-playable roguelike within seven days. My entry is called Disc RL (play), a client-side browser roguelike.

Today’s issue was saving the game state in Local Storage. Otherwise the entire game would be lost if the tab was closed or the page left for any reason. This would limit the possible depth of my game, as any time investment could easily be lost. The issue is that Local Storage only stores strings, so the game state must be serialized and deserialized by my application.

You might say, “Use JSON!” The problem is that I’m using JavaScript’s object system, including polymorphism. The actual monsters are prototypes of the various types of monsters, which are themselves prototypes of the base monster prototype. Serializing a monster with JSON.stringify() loses all this “class” information, so the deserialized object will have no behavior.

function Foo() {}

Foo.prototype.greet = function() {
    return "hello";

var foo1 = new Foo();
// => "hello"

var foo2 = JSON.parse(JSON.stringify(foo1));
// => TypeError: Object has no method 'greet'

Specifically what’s not being captured here is the __proto__ property of the original object. When a property is not found on the current object, __proto__ is followed to check the next object in the prototype chain, all the way up to Object. The greet() method is found on the next item in the chain.

So the next suggestion might be, “Include __proto__ in the JSON string.” The main obstacle here is functions values cannot be serialized. More specifically, closures cannot be serialized. Closures capture their environment but there is no way to access this environment in order to serialize it. If the prototype has methods, which it likely does, it can’t be serialized.

Fortunately for my purposes I don’t actually need to serialize any objects with methods directly attached. I only need to ensure the __proto__ property points at the right prototype before I start using the object.

// Setting __proto__ directly:

foo2.__proto__ = Foo.prototype;
// => "hello"

// Or if your implementation doesn't support __proto__ (IE):

var foo3 = Object.create(Foo.prototype);
for (var p in foo2) {
    if (foo2.hasOwnProperty(p)) {
        foo3[p] = foo2[p];
// => "hello"

Of course this one was really easy because there was only one prototype in my example. If we deserialize an arbitrary object how do we know which prototype to connect it to? We could attach this information to the object before serializing it. We can’t store the prototype itself because we’d run into the same problem as before. Instead, we want to attach the name of prototype. When the object is restored we can use the name to look up the appropriate prototype. Prototypes themselves don’t have names but constructors generally do.;
// => "Foo"

I’m going to stuff this name in the "#" property of the object, a name that is unlikely to be used. A longer name has a better chance of avoiding a collision, but since I’m putting this in localStorage, and every stored object gets this field, I want to keep it short.

function serialize(object) {
    object['#'] =;
    return JSON.stringify(object);

function deserialize(string) {
    var object = JSON.parse(string);
    object.__proto__ = window[object['#']].prototype;
    return object;

var string = serialize(new Foo());
// string === "{\"#\":\"Foo\"}"

// => "hello"

To look up the prototype I check for a global variable of that name on the global object, which in this case is window. This places one important restriction on how I use my serializer: all constructors must have names and must be assigned to the corresponding global variable. Being a prototype language this isn’t necessarily the case!

(function() {
    var Bar = function Quux() {};
    var bar = new Bar();
// => "Quux"

Here, the Bar/Quux prototype isn’t global nor does the attached name (Quux) match the name I used with new (Bar). If bar was serialized there would be no way to get a hold of its prototype.

So the two constraints so far are:

Before I started on this today I was actually violating both of these rules. It took a small amount of refactoring to meet these conditions. Those people trying to be clever by using closures to hide private fields on their objects will ultimately get stuck on the second constraint.

To be useful, I need to recursively enter arrays and objects, attaching prototype information to any other objects I come across. This introduces one last constraint: no object can be reachable more than once from my root object. If an object appears more than once, it will be serialized twice and duplicated in the data structure when deserialized. Worse, if I make a circular reference my serialization function will never return.

To deal with this the serializer would need to keep track of what objects it has seen and, when an object is seen again, a reference is emitted instead. The deserializer, after reading in the entire structure, would need to replace these references with the right object. Fortunately for my roguelike no single object appears more than once in my core data structure, so I don’t need to worry about this.

After discussing all this with Gavin he did a search an found HydrateJS, a JavaScript library to do exactly all this, including the object reference stuff I didn’t need. Unfortunately this library turned out to be way too buggy for me to use. Objects returned by the parser are unable to be properly re-serialized again, so I couldn’t save, load, and save again.

I ended up writing my own functions to do what I needed: save.js. It’s not as capable as HydrateJS intends to be, but it does everything I need, and my entire game state can safely go back and forth between load and save arbitrarily many times. Most of the complexity comes from just figuring out exactly what type a particular thing is. This is frustratingly non-trivial in JavaScript.

It was really neat to see all this working so smoothly once I got it in place. When I started my roguelike I wasn’t sure if I could pull off load/restore properly. You can see this system in action right now at the play link at the top of the post. Play a little bit, close the tab, then visit the page again. It should restore your game (note: IE unsupported).

I might rip my serialization stuff out into its own library when I’m done. I bet I’ll find it useful again.

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null program

Chris Wellons