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.
Competing Red Herring Definitions
In my experience, it seems like there are 3 different red herring camps:
- Anything not directly related to a puzzle is a red herring.
- Red herrings require intentionality.
- Anything that is misleading is a red herring.
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.
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.
That leaves us with the definition that anything misleading is a red herring… so let’s play with that idea for a bit.
Types of Red Herrings
Let’s look at a few types interactions that are misleading, intentionally or otherwise.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.”