Mark recently wrote a post about red herrings, but I encountered a room that incensed me to make a post about why they pretty much always suck.
1) Nobody likes them
I guess I shouldn’t try to speak for anyone else, but I’m going make this blanket statement anyways. Nobody likes red herrings. You might enjoy cool looking decor that happens to be a red herring; That just means that you enjoy the decor, or the atmosphere it’s contributing to. Nobody enjoys wasting time on a problem that doesn’t advance the game. As I’ve written before, people can enjoy being stumped by a puzzle, but they won’t like being stumped between puzzles.
2) They’re (usually) unfair
I would define fair in this case as being able to discern whether something is part of the game or not. If there is sufficient justifiable reason to ignore a red herring, it’s fine. If the only way to avoid wasting time on a red herring is that you happened to be lucky enough to have not seen it, it’s unfair.
3) Unintentional red herrings are sloppy and careless
The existence of unintentional red herrings is an oversight in the design process. It usually comes from trying to match the decor to the theme. Maybe they picked an Egyptian wallpaper for their Egyptian themed room and somehow the exact same symbol exists on the wallpaper as a puzzle. This is sloppy! These are usually easy to spot during playtesting, so it’s usually a mark of an untested room.
4) Intentional red herrings are lazy and anti-fun
It is trivial to make a difficult room. A child could do it. This is not hyperbole or even a slight exaggeration. It is incredibly easy to make a room difficult. It is hard to make a game both difficult, fun, and fair. That’s what proper design is! When an escape facility decides to try to increase difficulty by putting in intentional red herrings, it’s being super lazy! Instead of a puzzle taking up your time, your time is being distracted away. I did a room exemplifying this last week. If you wrote a walkthrough for it, it would start like this: “Enter the room. Ignore EVERYTHING. Turn left.” If that’s the designer’s attitude to it, why stop there? Why not just make a room with a 1000 fake keys and one real key. You can buy them in bulk, and now you’ve saved money on decor and furniture.