Tuesday 10 August 2021

Hexworld 3: Compression

Last time, we encoded our 311,040 world map hexel indices as a 622,080-character hexadecimal string as a way of embedding the data in an ASCII JavaScript file. We could use the following script:

hexworld(buffer => {
  const DATA = "00000000...ffffffff";
  buffer.set(DATA.match(/../g).map(x => parseInt(x, 16)));

This calls a function hexworld(), defined elsewhere, that takes as its only parameter a decompression function that fills in a pre-allocated Uint8Array buffer with the hexel indices. The "decompression" above consists of splitting the long hexadecimal string into 2-character segments and converting these to numeric values.

We can achieve better compression by using the built-in atob() function:

hexworld(buffer => {
  const DATA = "AAAAAAAA...////////";
  buffer.set(Array.from(atob(DATA), x => x.charCodeAt()));

The DATA string is reduced in size from 622,080 ASCII characters to 414,720.

If we look at the map itself, we see that it's ripe for run-length encoding or the like.

One possibility is the LZW compression algorithm. I tried this and came up with data plus decompressor what weigh in at under 32KB of ASCII:

function lzw(src) {
  var dic = Array.from({ length: 256 }, (_, i) => [i]);
  var key, dst = [];
  for (var val of src) {
    var nxt = dic[val] || [...key, key[0]];
    if (key) {
      dic.push([...key, nxt[0]]);
    key = nxt;
  return dst;
hexworld(buffer => {
  const DATA = "00007407...cb8cc80f";
  buffer.set(lzw(DATA.match(/.../g).map(x => parseInt(x, 36))));

The lzw() function above decompresses an array of integers into an array of bytes. For completeness, here's the corresponding compression function:

function compress(src) {
  const chr = String.fromCharCode;
  var dic = {};
  var idx = 0;
  do {
    dic[chr(idx)] = idx;
  } while (++idx < 256);
  var dst = [];
  var pre = "";
  for (var val of src) {
    var key = pre + chr(val);
    if (key in dic) {
      pre = key;
    } else {
      dic[key] = idx++;
      pre = chr(val);
  return dst;

In our Hexworld case, the LZW dictionary constructed during compression has about 10,000 entries, so those indices can be stored as three base-36 digits. This is a general-purpose compression scheme, so could a more tailored algorithm produce better results? Remember, we're aiming for something less than 16KB.

One solution I looked at was encoding the data as a sequence of 4-bit nybbles:

hexworld(buffer => {
  const DATA = "8bxQEhER...ER8NEw==";
  var input = Array.from(atob(DATA),
    x => x.charCodeAt().toString(16).padStart(2, "0")).join("");
  var i = 0;
  function read(n) {
    i += n;
    return parseInt(input.slice(i - n, i), 16);
  var land = 0;
  var next = 0;
  var o = 0;
  while (o < buffer.length) {
    var n = read(1);
    switch (n) {
      case 0:
        land = next = read(2);
      case 12:
        n = read(1) + 12;
      case 13:
        n = read(2) + 28;
      case 14:
        n = read(3) + 284;
      case 15:
        n = read(4) + 4380;
    buffer.fill(next, o, o + n);
    o += n;
    next = next ? 0 : land;

The algorithm is as follows:

  1. Read the next nybble in the stream
  2. If the nybble is 0, the next two nybbles contain the next "land" hexel index and go back to Step 1
  3. If the nybble is between 1 and 11 inclusive, it is used as the count below
  4. If the nybble is 12, the count to use is the value in the next nybble plus 12
  5. If the nybble is 13, the count to use is the value in the next two nybbles plus 28
  6. If the nybble is 14, the count to use is the value in the next three nybbles plus 284
  7. If the nybble is 15, the count to use is the value in the next four nybbles plus 4380
  8. If the last set of values output were "land", write out "count" indices of "water" (0)
  9. Otherwise, write out "count" indices of the current "land"
  10. Go back to Step 1
This algorithm assumes there are never more than about 70,000 value repetitions, which is more than enough for our map. It weighs in at under 19KB of ASCII text, which is getting very close to our goal. One thing to notice is that the nybbles are encoded into ASCII via atob/btoa which use base-64 and are therefore relatively inefficient.

My final attempt (the one that achieved my goal of data plus decompressor within 16KB of ASCII) uses base-95:

hexworld(buffer => {
  const DATA = ')  )gD}l...$)wA#).n';
  for (var d = Array.from(DATA, x => 126 - x.charCodeAt()),
    i = 0, o = 0, a = 0, b = 0, c = 0; DATA[i]; c = c ? 0 : a) {
    var v = d[i++];
    if (v >= 90) {
      v -= 88;
      while (--v) {
        d[--i] = 0;
    var n = ~~(v / 5);
    if (v %= 5) {
      c = v---4 ? v * 95 + d[i++] : b;
      b = a;
      a = c; 
    switch (n++) {
      case 17:
        n = d[i++] * 95 + 112;
      case 16:
        n += d[i++] - 1;
    buffer.fill(c, o, o + n);
    o += n;

This is slightly golfed, so I'll clarify it below.

[In a perverse way, I quite like the expression "v---4" which is shorthand for "(v--) !== 4"]

The data is encoded in base-95: the number of printable ASCII characters. This means that backslashes and quotes need to be escaped within the string. The choices of (a) using single quotes (as opposed to double- or backquotes) and (b) storing values in reverse order ("126 - x" versus "x - 32") minimize the number of escape backslashes needed for our particular map data.

Lead base-95 values are split into two values: low (0 to 4 inclusive) and high (0 to 18 inclusive). The high value holds the repetition count:

  • High values from 0 to 15 inclusive imply repetition counts from 1 to 16,
  • Sixteen takes the next base-95 value to produce a repetition counts from 17 to 111,
  • Seventeen takes the next two base-95 values to produce a repetition counts from 112 to 9136,
  • Eighteen is a special "repeated zero" value that simulates a lead zero repeated 2 to 6 times based on the low value.
The low value (except for when the high value is eighteen) encodes what should be repeated:
  • Zero alternates between the last land index and the water index (0),
  • One sets the land index to the next base-95 value,
  • Two sets the land index to the next base-95 value plus 95,
  • Three sets the land index to the next base-95 value plus 190,
  • Four alternates between the last land index and the previous land index specified.

This rather ad hoc algorithm is based on the following observations:

  1. Water (hexel index zero) is common throughout the whole map,
  2. If the last land hexel was a particular index, it is likely that the next land will be the same index,
  3. Due to the staggered hexel layout, land indices quite often alternate with either water or the previous land index

I'm sure there's plenty more mileage using bespoke compression, but after a certain point it becomes unhealthy. For example, one option I didn't pursue is re-ordering the country-to-hexel index allocation in order to improve compression. This smells suspiciously like super-optimisation.

One last avenue to explore for compressing the hexel map is the recent JavaScript Compression Stream API, but that's for another time.

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