Let’s talk about red herrings! First of all, what exactly is a red herring? Wikipedia says it’s “a clue which is intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual issue.” The classic example of a red herring is the suspicious, but ultimately not guilty, character in a mystery novel planted to distract you from the true culprit.
Take Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Professor Snape seems to be doing all sorts of dastardly deeds, and the naive trio of heroes does a great job of convincing the reader that he’s up to no good. But in the end you find that he’s actually just doing damage control in the wake of the real villain.
But what about red herrings in recreational puzzles? These would be extraneous bits of information or puzzle elements that are not related to the path to the answer. A red herring in a mystery novel, a mostly passive form of entertainment, might make the story more enjoyable, but the only way to enjoy a puzzle is to make progress toward the answer. Do red herrings have a place in puzzle design?
Let’s look at a couple of true red herring examples:
- In Post Hunt 2011, players were given a bag of stuff. The contents included a pen, a toothpick, a ping pong ball, a paper clip, a pipe cleaner, and a clue sheet. The clue sheet was used for the government agencies puzzle, and in the End Game, players were given specific instructions to write their phone number on the ping pong ball and drop it in the hole at the bottom of the C. None of the other items were used. Their existence and seemingly significant alliteration were both red herrings.
- Every year in Post Hunt, the map is full of little images and drawings that may or may not be significant. We raced down to the image of a boy in a T-shirt, thinking this might be the interpretation of “Tea for Two.” Red herring’d!
- Heck, the entire Washington Post Magazine is pretty much a red herring!
- Artifact #4 in the Black Letter Game was full of unnecessary information for the sake of aesthetics, though it was fairly easy to determine what was and wasn’t needed.
Red herrings should not be confused with other, unintentionally misleading elements like mistakes and coincidences. Post Hunt, again, is full of examples:
- The inverted chess board image in this year’s (K)night Moves puzzle was a mistake that wasted many solvers’ time.
- The inaccurately recreated vanity display in the Vanity puzzle last year was, I assume, a mistake that took many players down a number of wrong paths.
- The tape on the ground at the Navy memorial that majorly distracted us (and many others) this year and last year was, I assume, a coincidence (or an extremely dastardly red herring, the jury’s still out).
- The many red numbers found near the spy museum in the Spies puzzle were coincidences. Though the 007 seemed too coincidental to pass by, we all should have known it was too much of a stretch to call any of these numbers “dreaded.” It was also unlikely they would intend for us to crowd around such a small, cramped area to see the clue.
I recently ran a puzzle hunt where one puzzle turned out to be unsolvable. I can’t pass this off as a red herring, it was a mistake.
There are also unintentional distractions that fall into a strange category — they are actually legitimate clues, but they seem to be under-utilized. For example, on the first Black Letter Game artifact, a receipt, all of the prices were dates. All of these dates were also holidays. The holiday part was apparently just a clue to get you to realize the prices were dates (and indeed, we first picked up on the dates by noticing Halloween), and that was where the significance stopped. The holiday names themselves, the repetition of certain holidays, nothing holiday-related beyond that first connection was a clue. And, perhaps most frustrating of all, the final date answer was not a holiday either. This was a perfectly valid clue that morphed into a red herring when it became no longer useful to the answer.
Another example of this for my team was the Computer puzzle in this year’s Post Hunt. We worked out right away that the Fox character holding a torch represented Firefox, but the other animals mystified us. It turned out that they were insignificant at that point, having been meant only to get you thinking about animals in general and having you zero in on the fox. We had used up that clue, but we didn’t realize it. How do you know when a clue is no longer applicable? If the application seems too simple or short (especially when presented within an otherwise very elegant and robust puzzle), this can be problematic.
So can real, intentional red herrings add value and worth to a puzzle? I think it depends on the context. Let’s look at Post Hunt one more time. In general, I like the red herrings presented on the map. It’s fun to study and analyze them in advance, trying to keep them in the back of your mind as you encounter the rest of the puzzles and the End Game. Elements like these only become frustrating when you stop trusting that the puzzles are elegantly designed, and start believing that every possible path is equally likely and logical. That’s when you become susceptible to the siren song of the red herring, finding ways to justify why it makes sense, following the masses and ignoring your gut.
It helps that those Post Hunt red herring examples existed outside of any specific puzzle. They were all just potential clues to draw upon, or ignore, at any time. I’m not so sure about adding distracting elements to a specific puzzle. I can’t even really think of an example of something like this, but it’s the image that appears in my head when I think “red herring in a puzzle.” If you feel the need to distract players with misleading pieces, perhaps your puzzle isn’t very well-designed. In my experience, solvers will find all sorts of wrong paths to follow without your help.
One exception might be the red herring as it’s used in cryptography, which I learned about from The Puzzle Page while researching for this post. In cryptography, a red herring is “a second hidden message that is intended to be discovered more easily so that the real message remains hidden to anyone who might intercept the transmission.” This is pretty interesting, though I’m not sure how it would be applied to modern, recreational puzzle-solving. Perhaps this could be a way to split a puzzle hunt into beginner and advanced tracks, having the red herring clue lead to the beginner track and the real clue lead to the advanced track.
I’d love to hear some opinions on this from more seasoned puzzle designers and solvers. Do red herrings have a place in puzzles? Do you have any examples of red herrings you did or didn’t like?