I’ve written before about how irritating red herrings are, and how they don’t really have a place in escape rooms. They’re more often than not an artifact of poor design.
On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Easter eggs. So what’s the difference between the two?
Wall of text warning!
Easter eggs are messages or images hidden in media (television, movies, videogames) that serve as injokes or references for the observant (or hardcore) consumers. They aren’t mutually exclusive with red herrings; I’ve seen encountered items in escape rooms that could be considered both. However, in my opinion, that’s usually because it was put together carelessly. Here are some rules that I think would serve well.
1) Easter eggs are always intentional.
Red herrings don’t have to be. I’ve said it before, but unintentional red herrings are usually a byproduct of a lack of testing. Easter eggs are always intentional, by definition. It would be a very strange coincidence if the room’s designer accidentally left an entire hidden message in a room.
2) Easter eggs are not obtrusive to the experience.
This one’s a biggie. Red herrings are always obtrusive if you notice them. There are better and worse ways to put an Easter egg into a game. Hypothetically, say a game designer wanted to put an indexing puzzle where players have to decode hieroglyphics in an Egypt-themed room. In the same hieroglyphics, the designer wants the wallpaper in the game to say “Thanks for playing!”
Method 1: In the first room the players enter, the puzzle and the wallpaper are both readily accessible.
Verdict: FAIL. The rationale for why this is bad is that if players have access to both simultaneously, players could easily misidentify the wallpaper hieroglyphics as being a puzzle they have to do. This is made even worse if the players don’t find whatever solution was planned, and instead try to use the wallpaper to solve the puzzle, or vice versa. That’s misleading red herring territory! LIKELY GAMEPLAY INTERRUPTION!
Method 2: In the first room the players enter, the wallpaper is present. The puzzle is behind a locked door in the second room
Verdict: BETTER. This is better because although the hieroglyphics are present in the first room, since there is no puzzle, there is little chance that players will consider the wallpaper anything more than random symbols. In the second room, players encounter the puzzle. If they realize that the hieroglyphics in the puzzle are the same as those of the wallpaper in the first room, they might decode it to reveal the hidden message. Note that it is possible that players might see the puzzle in room 2, and then try to use the puzzle’s clues or solution to decode the wallpaper in room 1 before attempting the puzzle. UNLIKELY GAMEPLAY INTERRUPTION.
Method 3: In the first room the players enter, the puzzle is present, but the wallpaper with the hidden message is only found behind a locked door in the 2nd room.
Verdict: BEST(?). This method is better than the previous two methods because there is no significant gameplay interruption. The puzzle comes first. In the second room, if players realize that the wallpaper hieroglyphics shares the same symbology as the puzzle, decoding it would occur quickly (since they’ve solved the encryption key). If players don’t realize that there’s any relation, then they lose out on the message, but also waste no time in their escape. Ding ding ding, we have a winner.
Keep in mind that these methods are listed in ascending strength only in their relation to how unobtrusive they are to players in terms of gameplay. It might make less sense in terms of theme and narrative if carelessly thrown in.
Also keep in mind that Easter eggs in an escape room don’t necessarily require any solving, in which case it is also less likely to confuse players.
3) It should be readily apparent that Easter eggs are Easter eggs.
One annoying problem with red herrings is that they are not a closed loop in the sense that they lead to a conclusion – Players can’t waste a huge amount of time on it. If a designer accidentally leaves inadvertent misleading clues in a game, there usually won’t be any indication that they’re not supposed to be part of the game. You shoud be able to tell that an Easter egg is an Easter egg. If the “Thanks for playing!” example in the previous point wasn’t enough, maybe it should have been “Thanks for choosing (insert company name here)”. That would be unmistakable!
Those are the 3 main points. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s late!