3 minute read

After my previous post, what remained to be done regarding the serialization system was:

  • finding a way for the serializer to known if an object type has a ‘(de)serialize’ method.
  • finding a solution to send optional context to objects which need it to be (de)serialized.
  • providing easy to use solutions for serializing sets of objects with references to one another (eg.: scene graphs).

Since some objects required context to serialize, and others not, I decided to classify them into two categories:

  • Trivially serializable objects.
  • Context serializable objects.

Trivially Serializable

Trivially serializable objects don’t need context to be serialized or deserialized.

struct Fruit {
    std::string name;
    float weight;

    void serialize(Serializer& s) const {
        s.write(name, "name");
        s.write(weight, "weight");

    void deserialize(Deserializer& s) {

The struct Fruit is an example of trivially (de)serializable type: its serialize and deserialize methods only take a Serializer/Deserializer as argument. Serializing it and then deserializing it back should look like:

Fruit apple = { "Apple", 0.5 };
serializer.write(apple, "apple");

// ...

Fruit fruit;

// Both objects should be equal
assert(apple.name == fruit.name);
assert(apple.weight == fruit.weight);

Writing a dictionary which maps prices to fruits should also be straightforward:

std::unordered_map<float, Fruit> fruitsByPrice = {
    { 1.0, { "Apple", 0.5 }},
    { 1.5, { "Banana", 0.6 }},

serializer.write(fruitsByPrice, "fruitsByPrice");

// ...


And the same goes for arrays. But what about types that do require context to be serialized?

Context Serializable

Lets say we want to serialize a family tree, where each person points to its parents. We could define the type Human:

struct Human {
    Human* father;
    Human* mother;
    std::string name;
    int age;

We now have a problem: if we just serialized the pointer addresses, when we deserialized them back they wouldn’t mean anything: they wouldn’t be pointing to the new deserialized values, but to the old values which were serialized previously (which could have possibly been already destroyed).

One way to solve this is, instead of writing the pointers directly, we could use the indices in the array where the family members are stored. Since this issue happens so frequently, I decided to implement a SerializationMap<R, I> class which maps References to Identifiers, and vice-versa. In this case, a SerializationMap<Human*, int> could be used to map addresses to indices. But using this meant that the serialization methods must receive the map as context.

struct Human {

    void serialize(Serializer& s, SerializationMap<Human*, int>* map) const {
        s.write(map->getId(this->father), "father");
        s.write(map->getId(this->mother), "mother");
        s.write(this->name, "name");
        s.write(this->age, "age");

    void deserialize(Deserializer& s, SerializationMap<Human*, int> map) {
        int fatherId, motherId;
        this->father = map->getRef(fatherId);
        this->father = map->getRef(motherId);

This could work, but now just calling Serializer.write(human); won’t be enough since it requires context: in this case, a pointer to a SerializationMap<Human*, int> is required. I solved this by defining two concepts:

  • TriviallySerializable<T>: specifies that the type T is serializable, without the need of a context. It requires that T has a method void serialize(Serializer&) const.
  • ContextSerializable<T, TCtx>: specifies that the type T is serializable, but requires a context of type TCtx. It requires that T has a method void serialize(Serializer&, TCtx) const.

This way, I could define function overloads in the Serializer for TriviallySerializable types, and for ContextSerializable types. I did the same for deserialization: I also defined the concepts TriviallyDeserializable and ContextDeserializable.

With this done, serializing a Human becomes as simple as passing the map to the write method:

SerializationMap<Human*, int> sMap;
Human human;

// ...

serializer->write(human, &sMap, "human");

Here is how serializing and deserializing a whole family tree would look like:

Human family[4]; 
// ... init family members

// Add reference <-> id mappings
SerializationMap<Human*, int> sMap;
sMap.add(nullptr, -1); // Map nullptr to index -1
for (int i = 0; i < 4; ++i)
    sMap.add(&family[i], i);

// Serialize entire family
serializer.write(family, 4, &sMap, "family");
Human family[4];

// Add reference <-> id mappings
SerializationMap<Human*, int> sMap;
sMap.add(nullptr, -1); // Map nullptr to index -1
for (int i = 0; i < 4; ++i)
    sMap.add(&family[i], i);

// Deserialize entire family
deserializer.read(family, 4, &sMap);

The same technique could be applied to serializing and deserializing a scene graph, for example. With this done, we now have a system which is easy to extend, not overcomplicated and which allows us to serialize to multiple formats with minimal effort. Concrete (de)serializer types (eg: JSONSerializer) haven’t been implemented yet, but that task isn’t assigned to me. This system will be used to (de)serialize engine and game settings, components, scene graphs and other types.