Red Herrings in Escape Rooms [Design]

Red herrings are one of the oldest and strangest debates in escape rooms.

This is an unusual hot-button issue because unlike the public vs. private ticketing debate, there isn’t even consensus as to what constitutes a red herring in an escape room.

A big red fish viewed from head on. It has an intense gaze.

Competing Red Herring Definitions

In my experience, it seems like there are 3 different red herring camps:

  1. Anything not directly related to a puzzle is a red herring.
  2. Red herrings require intentionality.
  3. Anything that is misleading is a red herring.

Camp 1

I don’t think the first definition holds up to any level of scrutiny. This basically suggests that the set is only there as a container for the puzzles. I don’t think that is true or advantageous.

Camp 2

I also don’t think that intentionality can be the measure because nearly every escape room has some non-deliberate interaction in it. If a red herring must be intentional, then an aloof designer – whose game has little intentionality behind it – could never have red herrings.

Camp 3

That leaves us with the definition that anything misleading is a red herring… so let’s play with that idea for a bit.

A school of red fish near the surface of the water.

Types of Red Herrings

Let’s look at a few types interactions that are misleading, intentionally or otherwise.

Fake Puzzles

A fake puzzle is an actual puzzle that resolves to dead end.

One example is a decipherment that translates to an answer along the lines of:

  • “You just wasted your time.”
  • “You should work on something different.”
  • “Unhelpful solution.”

We’ve seen this type of thing a few times .

Fake puzzles are demoralizing. They beg the question: why didn’t you just integrate this into the game?

Ghost Puzzles

Ghost puzzles are any props, writing, or other markings that are left over from a broken or removed puzzle.

These remnants transform into a point of confusion. We’ve written more extensively on the subject.

Puzzle LookAlikes

Sometimes something looks like a puzzle, acts like a puzzle, and quacks like a puzzle… but it isn’t a puzzle.

Maybe this puzzle lookalike was placed there to intentionally mislead or maybe it was a complete accident. Regardless of the intent, if something irrelevant is regularly suckering players into thinking its a puzzle, it’s a red herring.

Escape rooms should not punish people for exploring interesting things in the gamespace. That’s a good way to make a player leave feeling like they wasted their time.

Irrelevant Cool Objects

The red herring that I have really grown to resent most is the really cool but irrelevant object.

When I walk into a game, I’m there for an adventure. I’m there to play. When I look around any given gamespace, my assumption is that the most eye-catching and fun objects in the room will be integrated into the gameplay.

If there’s a periscope in a submarine, I expect that I will use it for something. If that isn’t the case, first I will be distracted by it as I try to use it for a puzzle… and then I will be disappointed by the lack of an interaction. (An inconsiderate player might break the thing.)

A red fish viewed from the side.

Our Definition of Red Herring

The more I think about red herrings as they pertain to escape room design, the more I think that “anything that’s misleading is a red herring” is the correct definition… but that is only half of the issue.

Once something is misleading, the follow-up question should be: is it detrimental?

Fake puzzles, ghost puzzles, puzzle lookalikes, and irrelevant cool objects are almost always detrimental to gameplay.

Additionally, when the majority of teams require the same hint to solve a single puzzle, that puzzle is harming the experience, regardless of whether it is a red herring that causes the teams to falter. This kind of content is junky.

In the end, my feelings aren’t that a red herring = 😡.

My anger is directed toward spending my time with junk content instead of quality content. Unfortunately, red herrings frequently mean junk content.

Eliminate the junk and have your players grapple with quality gameplay.

“It’s Supposed To Be Hard Bro”

The most common red herring defense is, “we put it in there for the challenge; it’s supposed to be hard.”

I like a difficult game as much (or more) than the next puzzle nerd. If a game is going to be hard, however, I want it to come from challenging, interesting, and clean puzzles.

Anyone can make a game incredibly hard by hiding multiple tiny components in obscure places. Difficulty has no inherent value, especially in absence of quality content.

Closing Thoughts

Two years ago, we had dinner with puzzle designer Eric Harshbarger the night before competing in his puzzle hunt Eric’s Puzzle Party 17. At one point in the meal, he told me something that I think all puzzle designers should apply to their designs:

“I never design with red herrings. The players will create their own.”

10 thoughts on “Red Herrings in Escape Rooms [Design]

      1. Etymologically speaking, the “red herring” refers to smoked dried fish that is salted and artificially dyed until it’s red. The fact that all those fish look alive and unsalted is the real pedantic issue at stake here, but by tweaking the color, I’d say you’ve done your due diligence.

      2. I just learned a thing.

        After this published today, it occurred to me that I had no idea where the team “red herring” came from. Thanks.

  1. While I think you are on to something, I believe we have a ways to go as an industry to flesh this topic out where there is a higher level of consensus among the learned. Everyone has their sacred cows, er, herrings when it comes to puzzle design, flow, immersion, etc. When playing a room themed around a diabolical mastermind who has put you in this dilemma, one would expect some camouflage/distraction/feints/misdirections to be part of the experience. Like an escaped convict trying to confuse the bloodhounds on his trail. Many puzzles have a solution and several non-solutions. Are the non-solutions red herrings? On the micro you could say No, because they lead me to the solution. On the macro you could say the same.

    Every maze has many dead-ends yet I don’t hear folks complaining about the waste of time (mostly) and I’ve not heard them labeled as red herrings, yet. By your definition, for which I concur, red herrings are misleading. Now, they only become bad when they are detrimental. Since this is partly a personal tastes issue it is hard to have a standard for all as to the difference, but I offer the following as keys to a good red herring;

    1. It has to be fun (decoding long winded stuff is not).
    2. It cannot be the reason I did not escape the room in time.
    3. It has to feel like a logical part of the game.

    I empathize with your frustration when there is something that that your brain screams “AWESOME” and then you have the realization that the item is Just Decor.

    Maybe we could just call those things Blue Herrings.

    1. Yeah, I absolutely agree.

      I also think that nearly anything that’s generally a bad idea in escape rooms can, under the right circumstances be brilliantly implemented.

      I’m not going to pretend that all of this is fully fleshed out, but I hope that it reframes the red herring debate a bit. I think that this ultimately has more to do with quality of content rather than a question of what is or isn’t a red herring.

    2. With the compressed time limit of an escape room I don’t think I would be very receptive to any misdirection, although I have seen a few incredibly executed puzzles outside of escape rooms that zigged when the cluing signaled a zag. Even after those puzzles are completed though you can see that the cluing worked both for the zig and the zag, and not much, if any, time was lost with the misdirection. It just created a great Aha Moment.
      I welcome cleverness, but most of us cannot do misdirection correctly in puzzle design, I think, and certainly it is not as easy with such a compressed experience.

  2. ou lost me at the dismissal for Camp 2. I believe a true red herring has to be intentional, and yes, that means I believe an aloof designer cannot have red herrings. An aloof designer designs a bad puzzle experience that doesn’t have red herrings. A fake puzzle is a red herring. A ghost puzzle is not a red herring (but still bad design).

    I understand that in some sense, we’re just disagreeing over definition; my definition of “red herring” is narrower than yours. My definition does have the advantage that I can say that all red herrings are bad in a way that you can’t.

    I’m okay with taking the stuff you consider red herrings but I don’t and calling them “false red herrings”. A red herring that the players create themselves (a la Eric Harshbarger) is a false red herring.

    The problem with your definition of “everything that is misleading is a red herring” is that if you have a wide enough audience, you won’t ever be able to eliminate all your so-called red herrings. Because solvers are really, really, good at taking something you didn’t think was misleading and misleading themselves. Eventually 100% of all escape room designs are technically red herrings by your definition, at which point it’s a useless term.

  3. Ha!

    To me, red herrings often are simply missed opportunities for escape rooms to improve their game. I still am hacked off by an escape room in Pittsburgh that leaves a huge, antique safe in their game that even they cannot open. It’s the most striking object in the room, AND YOU WANT TO OPEN IT. I spent 15 minutes on that red herring and for what – frustration?

    If you see repeated issues with players being led astray by an object or something else in the game that you didn’t view the same way when creating the game (or if find a majority of guests are stumped by too difficult of a puzzle), for gawd’s sake, rework the game until you achieve the right balance in game play for your guests. Make the game for your guests. There’s absolutely no glory in rooting for the room to beat the players or for having the most difficult escape room in the state. Anyone can do that by adding too many red herrings or creating puzzles/clues that have gaps in logic. Frustrating! Creating a good game that has the right success rate for the amount of time allowed is where it is at. Take the time to observe the game play and look for ways to improve it until you get it right.

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