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Lua in Review 2

The Lua Logo Back in 2015, I reviewed the programming language Lua. A few months ago I rediscovered the maze generation implementation I ported as part of that post, and since then I've been writing quite a bit of Lua - so I thought I'd return to the thoughts in that original post and write another language review now that I've had some more experience with the language.

For those not in the know, Lua is a lightweight scripting language. You can find out more here: https://www.lua.org/

In the last post, I mentioned that Lua is very lightweight. I still feel this is true today - and it has significant advantages in that the language is relatively simple to understand and get started in - and feels very predictable in how it functions.

It is often said that Lua is designed to be embedded in other programs (such as to provide a modding interface to a game, for example) - and this certainly seems to hold true. Lua definitely seems to be well-suited for this kind of use-case.

The lightweightness comes at a cost though. The first of these is the standard library. Compared to other languages such as C♯ and even Javascript, the standard library sucks. At least half of the time you find yourself reimplementing some algorithm that should have been packaged with the language itself:

Do you want to do any of these? Too bad, you'll have to implement them yourself in Lua. While these really aren't a big deal, my point here is that with functions like these it can be all too easy to make a mistake when implementing them, and then your code has a bug in it. If you find and fix an obscure edge case for example, that fix will only apply to your code and not the hundreds of other ad-hoc implementations other developers have had to cook up to get things done, leading to duplicated and wasted effort.

A related issue I'm increasingly finding is that of the module system and the lack of reusable packages. In Lua, if you want to import code from another file as a self-contained module, you use the require function, like this:

local foo = require("foo")

The above will import code from a file named foo.lua. However, this module import here is done relative to the entrypoint of your program, and not the file that's requesting the import, leading to a number of issues:

While LuaRocks attempts to alleviate this issue to some extent (and I admit I haven't yet investigated it in any great detail), as far as I can tell it installs packages globally, which doesn't help if you're writing some Lua that is going to be embedded inside another program, as the global package may or may not be available. Even if it is available, it's debatable as to whether you'd be allowed to import it anyway, since many embedded environments have restrictions in place here for security purposes.

Despite these problems, I've found Lua to be quite a nice language to use (if a little on the verbose side, due to syntactical structure and the lack of a switch statement). Although it's not great at getting out of your way and letting you get on with your day (Javascript is better at this I find), it does have some particularly nice features - such as returning multiple values from a single function (which mostly makes up for the lack of exceptions), and some cute table definition syntax.

It's not the kind of language you want to use for your next big project, but it's certainly worth experimenting with to broaden your horizons and learn a new language that forces you to program in a significantly different style than you would perhaps use normally.

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