Objects or information designed to mislead or distract players.
Many games require that players try to figure out the correct or best action, or solve puzzles where not all information is known. Red Herrings, purposely misleading information or objects, can be inserted into the game to make them challenging. Some games, especially strategy games, also give players themselves the possibility to create Red Herrings for other players in order to distract or deceive them.
Adventure Games such as Police Quest or Zork series often use Red Herrings to give players objects or information that serve no constructive purpose in the games. Sometimes this is only true for a certain time and they can be put to meaningful use but they still serve as Red Herrings up to that point. Similar uses of objects and information can be found in detective scenarios in Live Action Roleplaying Games (e.g. Conspiracy for Good) and Tabletop Roleplaying Games (several examples of this can be found in Call of Cthulhu, Fallen Reich, and Mutant).
Players of Strategy Games, especially Real-Time Strategy Games such as the Starcraft series, can use some units as decoys in order to lure other players' into placing their units in positions where they are vulnerable to surprise attacks.
Using the pattern
Inserting Red Herrings into a game design is basically a case of misdirecting players regarding how they can solve goals, typically Puzzle Solving related to Gain Information or Gain Ownership. This means that Red Herrings also require some level of Imperfect Information to work. The exception is that players can use Red Herrings to lie about their strategies and intentions even in Perfect Information games.
The actual misdirection required of Red Herrings can be constructed by subverting Clues, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Props, Traces, and Helpers; Feelies can in this context be a special opportunity that combines physical Props with Clues. Traps are often Red Herrings but naturally need to appear to be something else to work as such. The use of Helpers is one way to provide misleading Indirect Information to players through Information Passing. The other way is to let the other players provide these Red Herrings. These can be in the form of decoys to help succeed with Conceal goals, which may be part of Social Interaction. Ephemeral Goals may in effect be Red Herrings since they may intentionally or not distract players from the main goals of a game.
Red Herrings are typically of a diegetic nature (although some may be more related to game interfaces), so they can be considered Diegetic Patterns.
Red Herrings are often present in Predetermined Story Structures, especially those using Detective Structures, to raise the uncertainty regarding how the narrative will progress. It can of course also create Surprises related to the overall plot besides just momentary ones.
Red Herrings populate Game Worlds and Levels with irrelevant or misleading content. While this can make Game World Exploration and Navigation more difficult, it can also support Thematic Consistency by providing a more believable amount of content. Discovering that Red Herrings are in fact Red Herrings is likely to be a Surprise, but may also lead to player frustration and work against them feeling a Value of Effort.
The presence of Red Herrings means that players have a Freedom of Choice while playing, even if there might only be one "correct" alternative. By thus giving players more potential outcomes from actions and more things to consider while playing the game, Red Herrings can create both Complex and Challenging Gameplay, and deciding which actions, information, etc. is worth investigating can be a form of Puzzle Solving in itself. Knowledge that Red Herrings make exist can modulate Anticipation and lead to increased Tension as players are more uncertain about the effects of their efforts.
Red Herrings are potentially conflicting with Supporting Goals in the sense that what to players may seem the latter can turn out to be the former.
Can Be Instantiated By
Can Be Modulated By
Possible Closure Effects
Potentially Conflicting With
An updated version of the pattern Red Herrings that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design.
- Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.