On Red Herrings and design...

I know excessive red herrings are frowned upon in IF. However, having finally gotten serious about getting an IF finished, I find myself starting to ponder various things. (It’d be my first IF since the 80s. As a kid, I used to use GAGS and later AGT to write games. I remember thinking no IF authoring system would ever be more flexible than AGT. How wrong I was…)

Right now, I’m in the final stages of a test IF (basically a short adventure in my house) that should never, ever been seen by the public for any reason. Once I finish this up, I go on to the real thing, the one I intend to release eventually.

One thing I was considering reusing from the test game is a sort of red herring, but I’m not sure if this is considered good design. Here’s basically how it goes:

Player finds a toilet. ‘x toilet’ … The description ends with “There’s a sign on this toilet that reads ‘Do not look in this toilet. It will only end in annoyance.’” What’s in the toilet? A red herring item. It looks like something you need to solve a puzzle, but won’t work. The game basically told you it was a red herring, but I’m wondering if someone could conceivably think the warning is the red herring, not the item.

The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a bad idea. But I thought I’d get an opinion on it. I keep thinking back to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the game kept insisting there was nothing in a specific room, but eventually would admit it had lied and there was something in the room. This is sort of the same thing, except the narrative wasn’t lying this time. Keep in mind, I don’t intend for this game to be particularly serious.

Any thoughts?

I don’t really buy the rules about what should or shouldn’t be in a game per se. I think what’s important is that the author’s design choices are consistent across their game in some way, and that the game communicates its overall sensibility well enough to the player that the player’s likely to know what to expect when the game does certain things, or to simply to be not outraged if the game pulled a swifty on them.

As you say, the atmosphere of Hitchhikers is ridden with enough illogic that players may groan at some of its tricks, but at least they’re on the same wavelength and may expect they’re being tricked, or find it amusing. If they find they’re not on that wavelength, they probably already gave up on the game. But no-one can say the game outraged them by suddenly screwing them over somehow. It was messing with them all the way.

I would not be inherently troubled by what you describe. You are warning the player (and even if you didn’t, arguably the mere fact that something is found in a toilet might be fair warning that it is likely to be no more than a load of crap).

The warning brings it within the category of what is probably the most famous red herring in literature (the fate of the fourth Indian in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) (using modern nomenclature for the novel and the rhyme). If its good enough for her, it should be good enough for anybody.

Robert Rothman

Personally I’d be disinclined to do this, not so much because of the red herring itself, but because I’m suspicious of anything that requires a fourth-wall-breaking nudge-wink to the player to make it fair. You’re kicking the player out of immersion and drawing her attention to the fact that it’s all a game.

There are some exceptions – I didn’t mind this kind of element in the recently released “You’ve Got A Stew Going” because the game was consistent throughout about its tone and its habit of talking to the player directly. So it’s not a hard rule, but still.

That said, the best way to work out whether a puzzle is unfair is through play-testing. See what the betas think.

People are going to differ wildly in how they perceive a gag like this, no matter how it’s done, because it’s a joke that depends not just on how you’ve established the tone of the game up to that point but on the player’s relationship with the medium in general.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is the difference between the narrator breaking the fourth wall and the world breaking the fourth wall. If I came across a note like that on a toilet in an IF, I might think “Oh, this is the game’s author messing with me” or I might think “Who put this note here? Which of the NPCs I’ve met so far would do something so silly?” or I might get hung up trying to decide whether this is a message from within the game world or not.

On the other hand, if the end of the description just says something to the effect of “Don’t look in this toilet” (although the specific wording matters a lot, I think) then I know that this is coming from the same guy who’s been telling me “You did this yesterday,” “After several seconds’ effort you do that,” and “You can’t do that”—at which point it’s a matter of whether I trust that guy to tell me “You shouldn’t do that”.

The two methods are also different in tone; to me the former seems a lot more… I don’t know if “slapstick” is the right word. It’s this level of “ha ha, this note is actually the author talking to you!” on top of everything else.

I think the term you’re looking for is “toilet humour”. :wink:

(Sorry to derail the thread, but I just could not resist making that joke. It was what we call in Dutch, using a football metaphor, a “shot before an open goal”.)

Maybe it’s just me, but whenever a game tells me not to do something, I interpret it as a clear signal that I should do it, if only to find out what happens.

Most game reviewers (or judges if you enter it in a comp) frown on breaking the fourth wall. But a sign that says “There’s nothing interesting here” or “Don’t bother examining this item” is not, in my opinion, a red herring. It’s just laziness where the author chose not to complete a scenery item.

A red herring would be an actual, described item that might be operable or transportable, yet would have no real function in the game. Like, if there was a hard limit on the number of objects a character could carry, and there was an extra useless object, carrying that useless object around in the game might result in an unwinnable situation if the player needed a different combination of objects.

My basic reaction is: what precisely are you trying to accomplish with this? Breaking the fourth wall and potentially misleading the player are both quite expensive: what are you getting in return?

If the answer is just ‘amusing myself at the player’s expense’, I wouldn’t put that in the plus column. As other people have said, if it contributes to the game’s tone or broader themes, go for it.

For any rule about IF design – indeed, for any principle of any art – the caveat “unless you are doing something rather unusual, and have the ability to make it work” should be taken as read. This does not mean that the rule isn’t useful.

I think maybe I’m not as literary as other folks around here. You mention that you’ve been into IF for a long time. Along with all the Hitchhiker’s references, I’m guessing you’re Meretzky-style old-school. If that’s the tone of your game, I think a note like that would be fine. As a player, I wouldn’t it interpret it as an unequivocal sign either way. I would absolutely look in the toilet, and I’d probably end up carrying what I found in there all over the map, but I don’t think I’d begrudge the author if it turned out to be useless. Especially if it turned out to be useless in a funny way - for example, if you got some really funny (but absolutely clear) denial messages in a handful of situations where you might expect it to be useful.

One thing I might recommend, though, is to make sure that the player remembers where they got the item and associates it with the warning note. A calculator found in the toilet might not qualify (unless it was wet and broken), but a cardboard tube or a rusty penny might.

Well, that’s the thing. Originally it was just supposed to be a one off joke where the toilet was filthy, hadn’t been cleaned in months. It’s like someone put the warning there because they were too lazy to clean it. It really had no significance for anything. But then I started thinking that really wasn’t very funny and didn’t have much of a point. What if, instead, I put an item in there that looks important but isn’t? The general consensus here seems to be it’s difficult to handle correctly, so maybe I should avoid it. In retrospect, that still has no point other than to tick off the player.

But the more I think about it, the more I dislike the whole idea.

But, to everyone, thanks for the replies. I’m going to have to stew over this for a while and see if it really seems meaningful to the game.

Indeed, it is. In the 80s, I really only played Infocom IF. The humorous ones were the ones I mostly played. But I remember playing stuff like HHGTG and Bureaucracy with the most fondness. (As an aside, I don’t remember Infidel fondly. That game drove me to rage. I never did finish it.) However, it’s important to note I was also a Sierra junkie. The early games had a parser and were actually fairly similar to IF in a lot of ways. This also has a huge influence on me designing IF. Not the graphical bits, but rather the humor of the games. (And how sometimes they had completely random items around. Stuff that only existed to make you laugh.) I think my Toilet idea came more from playing Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry as a kid than any Infocom game. Though, to be honest, I suspect either SQ or LSL would have made the item you pulled out of a toilet have a point.

But anyway, I’m getting a bit rambly now. The point is: I agree that if the tone of the game supports it (and it’s not in an otherwise serious game), it could work. However, even taking that into consideration, I kind of feel like it may be a bad idea to do that in a production game. But, as I said earlier in the thread, I’ll have to think about it for a while.

Obviously players are free to have whatever preferences they want, but I think it’s a shame that authors in this particular medium have to assume that breaking the fourth wall will get that reaction. People in other media have all the fun:

  • Grover tries to brick up the page so you can’t turn it and get any closer to the end of the book
  • George Harrison warns you “you may think the chords are going wrong” (but they’re not; he just wrote it like that)
  • Italo Calvino starts out If on a winter’s night a traveler by telling you how you felt when you heard he had published it
  • Cassius says “How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!” (I’m not savvy enough to know if that one’s meant to come off as a joke or not)

It has to be consistent with the tone of the work, sure. It can be grating and even embarrassing when it’s done poorly. And it shouldn’t be overused. But these things are true of every other rhetorical device.

I don’t think IF has a special case for the sanctity of its fourth wall for any reasons other than convention. Interactive media are the ones that have to explain what the audience is supposed to do, after all, and IF in particular is constantly addressing the player. There are even default messages like “I only understood you as far as…” in which the parser acts like it’s a person, which sometimes (especially in the case of “That’s not a verb I recognize”) prompt the player to type in “shut up”. I noticed that “Slouching Toward Bedlam” carefully avoids the first person and uses the second person as little as possible, which contributes to the tone and theme in a big way, but the effort to avoid breaking the fourth wall actually took me out of the story as I stopped to wonder why “I” wasn’t allowed. Certain breaks in mimesis are inherent to the IF experience.

I, too, am also rambly. dormammu, I have something to say to you: I am very disappointed that a game taking place in your house included a toilet that hadn’t been cleaned in months. You should take some time out of your day to clean your toilet. What if you had a special guest over?

I’m with capmikee – I’m not particularly old-school, but if the intended use of the item is fairly obvious and if the message that I got when I tried to use it is funny and if that makes it clear that it was a red herring (something like “The window slams shut on the cardboard tube, crumpling it like, well, wet cardboard. What did you expect from something you found in the toilet?” – but funny) and if I didn’t wind up wasting lots of time doing this (e.g., trucking the toilet item across five locations to try to solve the problem), then I think I’d find this an amusing joke that the game had played on me. But run it by your testers.

I’m not sure this is true – Rover’s Day Out won the comp before last, and it was full of knowing winks at the fourth wall if not outright breakages. I can’t find my favorite right now (the explanation of why forks and plates aren’t implemented), but there’s this:

This is only partly true: most reviewers frown on it if it’s done badly, and it’s very hard to do right. The most common problem I’ve encountered is that breaking the fourth wall involves insulting the player and then the problem isn’t in the fourth wall.

Right. The most common way to break the fourth wall is to say ‘yeah, this game element sucks, but whadja gonna do?’ Unless you’re writing something where the metafictional is a key theme*, it’s rarely a good idea to do anything that says ‘see what I did there?’

  • that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it

And of course, “the reviewers won’t like it” is not necessarily a reason not to do any particular thing. However, a lot of the reviewers in this community are thoughtful critics with opinions worth listening to.

I wholeheartedly agree with the advice from earlier in this thread about thinking critically about what your game stands to gain from a arguably experience-ruining move. This can be extended, though: think critically about what the game gains from any design choice, not just the potentially-unpopular ones.

If I recall correctly, Deadline Enchanter was also reviewed quite favourably by many reviewers. And then there are the weird wordplay games that don’t even have a fourth wall to break.

I don’t know – in these postmodern times, is breaking the fourth wall really such a big deal that it needs to have a clear pay-off?

Yeah, the beauty of DE is that it breaks the fourth wall from the very beginning… until you realise that it wasn’t a wall, just a little division, and the real fourth wall is still very much intact.