One Fish, Two Fish, Red Herring, Blue Fish

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?

8 comments on One Fish, Two Fish, Red Herring, Blue Fish

  • tabstop

    The common thing I see red herring messages used for is to acknowledge a possible reasonable approach that isn’t used. For example, when you have a word search-based puzzle, people will look at the unused letters, because that is What You Do with a word search. Those letters are (usually) free choices for the designer, so a message will be put there. If there’s something else going on, then the message will either be a clue to the other thing, or just a message of “There is nothing to see here.” But you as a designer have to acknowledge the fact that people are going to look there.

    It’s a little trickier when you don’t have the obvious setup like a word search, and that’s where the playtesters come in. If they find something to do that makes sense (as it is written so far), then you need either better clues as to what the Right Thing is, or you can make it clear from the results that you’ve gone down the wrong way. This is the hard part from the design perspective; I try to re-solve all my puzzles from scratch, but it’s really difficult, when you know what the Right Thing To Do is, to look at the puzzle fresh and see what Wrong Things are hiding there.

    If you have a two-step puzzle (ie ultra-high difficulty) where you first have to (say) extract the first letter of the words with an odd number of letters in them, and then decode the result with a Vigenere cipher [I don’t think that’s ever been done, so hopefully no spoilers], you would sort of want a message in the intermediate result, so that people don’t just say “that’s gibberish” and stop.

    (For examples, you can look up “Be Noisy” [a rather famous MIT Mystery Hunt inadvertent red herring] and the Matrix MIT Mystery Hunt, where basically entire puzzles were, not red herrings exactly, but … incomplete.)

    • clavicarius (author)

      As a relative puzzle beginner trying to design puzzles, I’m finding there is a lot of What You Do that I don’t know about yet. The different understood conventions etc. are really fascinating, and I had never considered that you can use them (or their leftovers) to sneak in additional clues. So much complexity! Thanks for sharing =)

  • Cap'n Joe

    Ever been to Bunny Island? Frankly, I do not like red herrings in puzzles. I prefer that all parts fit together logically and elegantly. I like it when the solution brings together all the different elements of the puzzle– or, to put another way, when from all the chaos comes order and you see how each part relates to all the other parts. When you have leftover chaos or red herrings or, as Team D.O.L.E.A.C likes to refer to it, ‘blather,’ you feel somewhat cheated and unimpressed by the solution. Especially, when you spent hours and energy working on part of the puzzle that it had nothing to do with its solution.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Glad we weren’t the only ones stumped by Bunny Island!

  • Alex Pearson

    Elegant (adj): Everything cluing and everything clued.

  • Jason

    I generally make a distinction between ‘red herrings’ and ‘noise’. Red herrings are deliberate clues that lead you down a wrong path. Following that path makes sense, as a solver, but it doesn’t lead anywhere. If used at all, these sorts of red herrings should quickly lead to a dead end that says, plainly, this is not the answer. Usually, though, I think red herrings should be avoided in puzzle design.

    Noise, on the other hand, doesn’t really intentionally imply any sort of wrong solution, though it does obfuscate the proper solve method. When you cut through the noise, the solution should become apparent, though you may struggle with the noise and find a false solution method that was never intentionally planted there (that’s a danger you face when designing with noise). When I think of noise in puzzles, I’m always reminded of a really cool puzzle from the GenCon hunt. It was a computer-themed puzzle with multiple choice questions. The basic question was, “What is this?” and there would be a picture with two possible answers. One answer was a snarky answer in English (like “primitive word processor” for a pencil, and the other answer was just a binary string. Well, the puzzle was mostly noise. The pictures and plain English answers didn’t matter at all. Each binary string simply translated to a letter of the alphabet and spelled out the answer. I wouldn’t call any of that ‘red herrings’, even though you might have gotten stuck trying things that didn’t ultimately work. While I don’t like red herrings, I think judicious use of noise can make for some pretty awesome puzzles.

  • Todd

    I usually try to avoid having any red herrings in puzzles, because I just don’t think they’re very fun to discover or deal with as a solver. And more often than not, they seem to be used as a crutch by a puzzle constructor when the puzzle either is too simple and easy or too noisy and complicated.

    I even dislike using a red herring to acknowledge a possible wrong approach because for a brief moment (or possibly a lot longer) it gets the solver excited that they’re doing the right thing when in fact not only are they doing the wrong thing, but they’re going to spend a little more time decoding the “you’re doing the wrong thing message.” So I would prefer having no message at all in the leftover letters of a word search than having a message that simply told me this wasn’t the right thing to do. The exception would be if this message somehow steered me in the right path, which would then be good.

    Here’s an example of a horrible red herring from the recent MUMS puzzle hunt in Australia:

    We stared at this for quite a while having no idea what to do, trying numerous things such as putting the photos in the correct time sequence or seeing what had moved. Finally it occurred to me that the guy in the striped shirt might be doing the Dancing Man cipher. So we started decoding his body position and sure enough, we were thrilled that it was spelling out stuff! Unfortunately, the message was RED HERRING. Wha?

    Turns out that another guy in the images is playing Charades, which we eventually got, but boy were we annoyed that we have discovered something that didn’t matter at all. It would have been MUCH better to have the Dancing Man message to spell something like PLAY CHARADES, which would have rewarded our insight.

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