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Writing Snake in 12 Lines of PyTorch

How to use linear algebra and tensor operations to emulate Snake

Coiled python snake
Photo by Los Muertos Crew from Pexels

First of all, I want to declare this article the founding document of snaketronics.

The scientific pursuit of the nature of computational snakes and all their implementations and applications in modern society.

Secondly, I bet you have a couple of questions, like:

Exactly how long are these 12 lines?

Don’t worry, it’s all PEP 8 compliant.

Why would you ever do this?

I am of the controversial opinion that: Sometimes it is important to not write code that is “correct”, but to write code that is fun. Besides, this is also a great way to get to know the PyTorch tensor API and appreciate the vast possibilities of what tensors can represent.

Surely there is no legitimate use for this, right?

On the contrary; the techniques used in this article are in fact the fundamental techniques that have allowed me to write TensorSnake, a PyTorch module that is able to emulate 100 million games of Snake in parallel on a NVIDIA A6000 card with 20ms latency.

You can view the entire code in the summary of this article, or on GitHub:

Today we are programming a version of Snake where the snake can loop around the screen. However, you can change 2 lines to produce the original version of Snake, but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

We will be using PyTorch and NumPy. This could have been done completely in either, but I prefer the PyTorch tensor API and NumPy has a nice function called unravel_index that we will be using.

I will also not be counting the imports and function declaration; call it freedom of artistic expression.

Now that we’ve got all of the formalities out of the way there is only one thing left to say:

Buckle up Buckaroo, because this is going to be a wild ride!


Snake encoding diagram

The crucial part of this code is the encoding of the snake state. As any computer scientist worth his or her salt should know: It’s all about the data, baby!

We want the encoding to be a matrix such that if displayed with plt.imshow it shows a playable game of Snake. It also needs to encode all of the information needed to play Snake in a manner that makes it easy to update.

For this reason, we will encode the state as a matrix of integers where every open cell in the game is 0, the tail of the snake is 1, every cell of the snake increases by 1 towards the head and the food is −1. So, for a snake of size N, the tail will be 1 and the head will be N.

Next, we will be using a slightly odd encoding for actions. Instead of the traditional [up, right, down, left] encoding we will be stealing the action encoding from the article Teaching a computer how to play Snake with Q-Learning by Jason Lee. This encoding is [left, straight, right] relative to the current snake direction. This is slightly harder to play for a human, but every action is always a valid action since you can’t go backwards.


With an absolute banger of an encoding in place, we can pick up where we left off and get into the trenches of actually writing code.

I will not be providing in-depth explanations of the functions I am using. This is both because all of the functions are from the PyTorch API and these are well documented already. Also, it is good practice to learn to read the documentation in order to get familiar with the PyTorch terminology.

I highly suggest having a tab open with the PyTorch API documentation while reading this article.

Getting the current position

Fetch position diagram

The first thing to do is to get the current and previous position of the snake head. We can do this with topk(2), since the head of the snake is always the largest integer and the previous head is the second largest. The only problem we have is that the topk method works along one dimension at a time. For this reason, we need to flatten() the tensor first, get the top k elements and then use the aforementioned unravel_index to convert it back to a 2D index. At last, we want to turn the two indices into tensors so that we can do maths on them as well.

Code snippet, line 1–2

Calculating the next position

Getting next position diagram

To calculate the next position we do pos_cur — pos_prev. This yields a vector pointing in the current direction of travel of the snake. Next, we want to rotate it, but how much?

We want to rotate it 270 + 90 * action degrees. This way when 0 is given as an action we turn left, 1 we travel straight, and 2 turn right.

To achieve this we apply a rotation matrix. If a matrix is applied to itself, it gives us a matrix that is equivalent to applying the transformation twice. Therefore, we can take the direction vector and apply a 90-degree counter-clockwise rotation matrix T([[0, -1], [1, 0]]) raised to the power of 3 + action.

Finally, we add the current position to this new direction vector to produce the next position. Then we take the new location and take the pairwise modulus with the size of the board to generate the wrap-around functionality.

Code snippet line 3–4

How to die

Ah, the age-old question. Oh wait, what were we talking about? That’s right, snakes, never mind!

Since we now have the next position, it is fairly trivial to figure out whether the snake should die or not. We just have to check if snake[tuple(pos_next)] > 0 since the only values with more then 0 on our board are the cells where the snake currently is.

If the snake is dying, we want to return the score of the current game. This is also fairly trivial since the score of the game is the same as the length of the snake minus 2 (assuming we start the game at snake length 2). To get the length, we just have to get the value of pos_cur since this is the current head of the snake. That means the current score is snake[tuple(pos_cur)] — 2.

Code snippet line 5–6

How to eat

Time to brace yourself; the next 3 lines are the most complicated in the game.

To check if the snake is eating, we check if snake[pos_next] is −1. If this is the case then we need to find all positions on the board which are currently 0. These are empty cells where we can potentially put food.

When we have all of these positions, we need to select one of these indices at random and update its value to be −1. We don’t need to edit the current −1 entry as the snake will overwrite it when it moves.

To find all the places that are currently 0, we just use snake == 0 (this returns a boolean tensor). Next, we do .multinomial(1) on this to select one at random. The multinomial(n) function samples n random indices from a tensor with a probability based on the value of the element.

However, multinomial works row-wise (like topk) as well as only taking floats. Therefore, we need to do both .flatten() and .to(t.float) first. This way, each index where the value equals 0 has the same probability of being picked, and every index where the value does not equal 0 has a zero probability of being picked.

Once this is done we need to unravel it again to get a 2D index and update the snake tensor.

Code snippet line 7–9

How to move

To move the snake, we shrink the current snake and append a new head at the next position.

However, we only want to shrink the snake if we are not eating. If we are eating, then we want to extend the size by 1 cell.

Therefore, we append an else clause on the previous if statement to shrink the snake. Since the snake is numbered and the last tail cell is 1, we can subtract 1 from every cell on the grid larger than 0. This is because every cell in the grid larger then 0 will be a cell representing the body of the snake. Thus, doing this will shrink the snake by one cell.

To append the new head, we need to set the next position to the value of the current position plus 1.


So, that’s it. There you go. Snake in 12 lines.


Oh, you want to play it as well?!

Originally this was written as an RL environment so I had no interface for it, but for you, I’ll make one. However, it’ll cost you 15 more lines. Classic user interface code always has to be so complicated…

I won’t explain the user interface code, but here you go:

So, now you can play Snake to your heart’s content. But, remember, if you think this was too easy, this is only the first snaketronics article. This was merely a prerequisite. I plan to release an article series exploring how to turn this into a PyTorch module that can emulate 100 million games of Snake in parallel.



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