code smell – How to tackle a ‘branched’ arrow head anti-pattern?

user61852 has a pretty good answer solving the general problem of simplifying nested conditionals. However, I was intrigued with your proposed state machine-like solution, and wanted to illustrate how that can sometimes be preferable to a set of binary flags.

It all depends on the sequence of obtaining the flags’ values and how many combinations are valid. If you have n flags, you have 2n states. For 4 flags, that’s 16 states, and as you observed, only 3 of them may have any useful meaning. In situations like that, using a state variable instead can simplify things greatly.

Let’s say you have a lock that will open if 4 keys are pressed in the right order. If you press any key incorrectly, it immediately resets back to the start of the sequence. A very na├»ve way to implement a keypress handler using binary flags is:

void key_pressed(char key)
{
   if (!key1correct)
   {
      if (key == pin(0))
      {
         key1correct = true;
      }
   }
   else if (!key2correct)
   {
       if (key == pin(1))
       {
           key2correct = true;
       }
       else
       {
           key1correct = false;
       }
   }
   else if (!key3correct)
   {
       if (key == pin(2))
       {
           key3correct = true;
       }
       else
       {
           key1correct = false;
           key2correct = false;
       }
   }
   else
   {
       if (key == pin(3))
       {
           key4correct = true;
       }
       else
       {
           key1correct = false;
           key2correct = false;
           key3correct = false;
       }
   }

   if (key1correct && key2correct && key3correct && key4correct)
   {
       open_lock();
       key1correct = false;
       key2correct = false;
       key3correct = false;
       key4correct = false;
   }
}

A simplified, flattened version using binary flags (like user61852’s answer) looks like this:

void key_pressed(char key)
{
    if (!key1correct && key == pin(0))
    {
        key1correct = true;
        return;
    }

    if (key1correct && !key2correct && key == pin(1))
    {
        key2correct = true;
        return;
    }

    if (key1correct && key2correct && !key3correct && key == pin(2))
    {
        key3correct = true;
        return;
    }

    if (key1correct && key2correct && key3correct && key == pin(3))
    {
        open_lock();
        key1correct = false;
        key2correct = false;
        key3correct = false;
        return;
    }

    key1correct = false;
    key2correct = false;
    key3correct = false;
}

That’s a lot easier to read, but still in both of these solutions you have states like key2correct && !key1correct that are completely invalid and unused. Whereas using a state variable num_correct_keys instead of the binary flags looks like this:

void key_pressed(char key)
{
    if (key == pin(num_correct_keys))
        ++num_correct_keys;
    else
        num_correct_keys = 0;

    if (num_correct_keys == 4)
    {
        open_lock();
        num_correct_keys = 0;
    }
}

Granted, this is a contrived example, but people often write code like the first version in less obvious situations, sometimes spread across multiple files. Using a state variable often greatly simplifies code, especially when the flags represent a sequence of events.