Anne and Chris Lukeman of Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space (CU Adventures) were professional videographers and filmmakers working at the University of Illinois and making science fiction, horror, and comedy films on the side before they opened their business dedicated to escape room adventures. Escape rooms seemed like an interesting way to tell stories that would also allow them to pay artists. Right before the pandemic, they were running five games and halfway into building a sixth. Since the pandemic, with a supportive landlord, they have scaled back the number of in-person rooms available (three right now) and are working on projects that can be experienced at home.
Smile Politely: Tell me about the first time you all went to an escape room?
Chris Lukeman: As far as the term “escape room” goes, we heard the term years before we played.
Anne Lukeman: We heard about escape rooms probably around 2010. It was this crazy thing that Japan had that we were like, “Wow, that is amazing.” But we thought we could never have that in the US. It sounded like a video game in real life.
C. Lukeman: Flash forward to a few years later. Anne and I have been always enamored with weird, immersive like entertainment things. We were in the Wisconsin Dells and there's a place called Wizard Quest, but it’s not an escape room. It's a huge fantasy themed play place. It had a puzzle game that was spread throughout it.
A. Lukeman: It was almost like a scavenger hunt. But it was very immersive and interactive. And again, clearly built for adults, though kids could play too. This was the first time we played a game like this, that it wasn't like, “Oh, we're playing something for kids.” It was at the difficulty level that it was fun to play as grown-ups.
C. Lukeman: As we played, we saw a lot of families just kind of, you know, enjoying it. Which is still pretty fun. And then there were like one or two other groups aside from us that were trying to win it. And we ended up running at breakneck speed to beat this two-hour game with like, three minutes left.
A. Lukeman: On that same trip, we'd also visited The House on the Rock. It's a roadside tourist attraction up in Wisconsin that kind of hits some of the same buttons for us, in terms of thinking about how we interact with physical space.
C. Lukeman: Returning from that trip really set us off on thinking about things that we could do in Champaign Urbana. Escape rooms started popping up here and there and in other big city centers, but they didn't really start popping up in communities around the size of Champaign-Urbana until the year we opened — October of 2015. By the time we ended up opening, there were eight in Illinois, and pre-pandemic, there were at least 50 different companies in Illinois.
SP: Has your approach to storytelling shifted at all since the pandemic?
C. Lukeman: The philosophy of how our games work hasn't really shifted, but the medium has shifted a lot. So, starting in July, we have reopened to limited in-person bookings at the escape room with extra cleaning and other measures in place to limit exposure to staff. We were able to do some online digital experiences that have been really excellent. And those have taken a little bit of a different approach. But the philosophy behind them has always been the same.
A. Lukeman: There's some escape rooms out there that are interested in capitalizing on the pandemic, but our philosophy is very much driven from escapism and taking people away from the real world into a fantasy sci fi crazy, magical genre space and letting them forget about the real world for a little bit.
SP: Can you tell me about a collaboration with an artist that you're most excited about or proud of? It could have been pre-pandemic. What do your partnerships look like now in terms of hiring artists to come in?
C. Lukeman: For a long time, we have been putting on a huge, large scale live event at a gaming convention in Indianapolis called Gen Con, that happens every year. It's the biggest gaming convention in the country. And we're in a unique position geographically in that Indianapolis isn't a far drive. Starting in the summer of 2016, we would basically work all summer to put together pop-up escape rooms in about a 3000 square foot space. At one point we filled two gigantic box trucks full of set, we had 30 people on staff for it almost all from Champaign Urbana.
A. Lukeman: We tried different things every year. It was an experimental time.
C. Lukeman: We would have artists in and out every day working on different little bits of scenic design. That was how we did our first collaboration with Barry Abrams who we've done a bunch of collaborations with. He's the designer we probably work with the most often. And he did an integrated video game system where the video game was of the room that the players were in. The players had to navigate this video game in the room. And we wired in a bunch of different controllers, everything from Atari joysticks to the Power Glove to NES controller, Super Nintendo Sega, all into this one weird system that we wired into an old 50s TV where players would get to the point in the game where the TV would turn on and the game would start and the sides of the TV station would just pop open and all of a sudden they would have like seven different controllers from all different machines from you know, what, 15 years of video games. And they would have to figure out what the buttons did and how to play the game and how it related to the real physical space that they were in. Barry did an amazing job on that. The decor, the design, the physical imagery of the game was beautiful. He's a great graphic designer.
A. Lukeman: When they beat the game, a secret door popped open. Tickets sell out every year months in advance. A current thing that we're working on is we have a local artist working on a mural on our building. That was supported by an Urbana Public Arts Grant.
SP: What happened to the room you were working on pre-pandemic?
C. Lukeman: We put a hold on it. The investment and making the games at the level that we want to is a lot. We've gotten some work done on it in the past few months, but mostly we've been focused on projects that can be experienced at home or things we can do to make CU Adventures run smoother and safer for in person games.
A. Lukeman: Having more games open doesn't really help us at this point. Our goal is to keep one group in the lobby at one time, so we can really only have two, maybe three games open at once.
C. Lukeman: We're pretty committed that if you attend something in person, you're not going to see another public group. You'll see our staff but you won't see anyone else when you visit. That limits how much we can do. We're getting about as many people as we feel comfortable handling.
SP: Doesn’t that also cut down on revenue?
C. Lukeman: Yes, our revenue is about a quarter of what it was last year. That's just where we're at for 2020. In addition to our in-person games, we've done a few digital projects. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, when the at home order went into place, we mobilized a game that would allow us to keep paying our staff because we're so in-person. We wanted to make sure we could keep paying our staff as much as we can. We developed a digital project that is called The Lost Temple. It's based on a game we had open for a few years, but it recently retired back in November. It's a digital plus print and play game. It's a website interface that has voiceover and video and a lot of different digital rooms and pages to explore. When you find something in the website interface, it says, for example, now access page 23, then you shuffle through your printed pages.
A. Lukeman: It kind of has that feel of exploration of an escape room where you're not sure what you're going to find. And there's enough pages in the packet that you're not just going to look at all of them; you're going to find them in the game. And that was really well received by the by the escape room community. One of the surprising benefits of it was that we were able to have players from all around the world play our games, which is not something we ever really expected. A lot of our sales come from the UK.
C. Lukeman: Yeah, we we've gotten a lot of good reviews from reviewers that wouldn't necessarily stop in Champaign-Urbana under normal circumstances. They played the game and absolutely loved it. So that's been awesome. There’s a popular escape room reviewer in the UK who gave us a great review. We maybe get a dozen sales from England alone every week of this game.
A. Lukeman: Especially since we released it in May, back when almost everybody was still kind of in a shelter in place. Everybody was just at home desperate for things to do. Now, things are a little bit different. But we're working on a new one like this for the Halloween season that we're hopeful. It should be out at the end of the month.
C. Lukeman: It'll be a nice, seasonal story to hold through the winter months. It’s a slightly spooky ghost story set in an office building.
A. Lukeman: There’s nothing scarier than going back to the office, right?
SP: You mentioned that The Lost Temple came out in May. How did that creative process work? I remember having a hard time focusing on anything in April.
A. Lukeman: We had 18 employees and not including us, and not everybody's full time. We had a large staff to run all of our games. We wanted to make sure that the folks who needed it would have some kind of income, and then we could figure out a way to help. The Lost Temple is a version of a game that we had built in real life and run in real space. Our employees knew the game really well. It was less of a coming out of nothing and more of adapting. And so that was really helpful that people could do stuff from home. But then people would write or record voiceover, or do sound editing,
C. Lukeman: In addition to The Lost Temple, we did the project for Pygmalion a few weeks ago. And that was met with great success. It was a totally different kind of digital experience that's also been gaining a lot of popularity in recent months. When this hit the escape room industry, it seemed like companies were either pushing through and staying open if they were able to, which is its own thing. Or if they were offering an online option, they're either doing something similar to what we did with The Lost Temple, where it's a just point and click game. One way we're able to stand out with The Lost Temple is our interface is very smooth, we've gotten so many comments and reviews, that say this is the best print and play out there. This was from big reviewers that had thought about coming to see us but never saw us in person. The other kind of way that escape rooms adapted was with live camera games that have become known as avatar driven games, where the Game Master is in the physical escape room, wearing a camera on their chest, and they are the hands and eyes of the players.
A. Lukeman: But our games are a little more difficult to adapt to that format because ours are really built for people to spread out and do lots of different things at once, which is really hard when you only have one camera. It works better for older, linear-style games, where you have to solve puzzle A and then puzzle B and puzzle C. But we used this opportunity to use some different tropes and for experimentation.
C. Lukeman: When Pygmalion contacted us about doing this kind of story, we had already been thinking about it and jumped on it. Half the game took place at the Station Theater. The story centered around a theater troupe that had stolen a performers’ violin. The performer was Sudan Archives which was a tie in with Pygmalion for featured artist. And we based the story around where players would get a pre-recorded video briefing then get sent to the scene where they were private eyes trying to help an investigator piece together evidence at the Station Theater. And then the other half of the game, we set in a 35-foot hallway with a camera track. So instead of the players watching a camera that someone was wearing, they were looking at an investigator who was a locked in this tricky situation, and trying to get the violin and as they helped the investigator solve puzzles, the camera would move with them down this hallway, kind of like a side scrolling video game. It was a pretty weird situation that I don't think anyone's done before.
SP: Are you getting people who are new to escape rooms? People who need something to do?
C. Lukeman: Yeah, we were getting people trying The Lost Temple with their parents. You can play the game at your computer just by yourself, or you can open up the zoom window, you both log into the same game. And then you talk about what you what you seen what you find. I know it was popular with families. I know there were a few people that messaged us that were saying like, Hey, we haven't been to see your adventures for years because we've had these tiny children. And we loved playing this with them as their first kind of escape room experience.
A. Lukeman: Well, I think escape rooms, post-pandemic escape rooms, are positioned well to be an entertainment choice that seems safer than going to a large group thing because it is just you and your group. It's going to be less than 10 people and you're going to go just be in a room where it's just you and you will know everyone.
SP: The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission awarded you a COVID-19 Layoff Aversion grant that helped you to make props for the Deluxe Edition of The Lost Temple. Can you describe the one prop that at home users get with The Lost Temple that you are most proud of?
C. Lukeman: For the deluxe edition, we had all of this high-quality media that we had produced in house, we had beautiful photos of the room, we had interesting, detailed pictures, historical documents that we had altered to include clues. We drew a lot from kind of public domain art and historical records and things like that to tell the story, which made it the perfect game to do a high-quality recreation of the props that we could mail to people that really wanted the full experience. And we have our workshop manager, Holly Brown, who did a great job of recreating smaller versions of physical puzzles that players would unlock when they play the escape room.
A. Lukeman: I would probably say that these are probably the coolest. They're craft paper pieces. And they're photoshopped to look like the idol. We have a big wooden idol. The deluxe edition has heavier paper that's already pre-cut and color printed. It does look pretty cool when you put it all together.
SP: Anne, I watched you speak about owning an escape room on a panel for Recon 20. You mentioned thinking about future digital ideas and also outdoor activities.
A. Lukeman: We were we were working on an outdoor game but then with the Pygmalion project and then this game that we're doing for October kind of got pushed back. I don't think we're gonna get to it before it gets cold. But it's worth thinking about spring.
C. Lukeman: The weather kind of made it a risky proposition to set something up outside. We were happy we had the option to do the Pygmalion project.
A. Lukeman: We've gotten some good steps but everything changes like every week. We were working with partnering with other downtown Urbana businesses to have different stops to solve puzzles.
C. Lukeman: I think that if it seems like things are still pretty tough in the spring, we'll jump into that pretty much as soon as weather allows. But for now, we're just kind of preparing for the winter and all the different ways that could affect us.
A. Lukeman: The Christmas season is usually very busy for us, from Thanksgiving until maybe mid-January is always just absolutely bonkers. Assuming it won't be like that we're trying to work out alternative revenue streams, focusing more on products, things that people can purchase and have shipped to them or give as gifts. Physical things that people can take into their own homes as they celebrate the holidays, in this weird year.
SP: What else do you want Smile Politely readers to know?
C. Lukeman: We are appreciative of the Champaign-Urbana community. A lot of people who had enjoyed coming to visit us in person saw our position and came out in a big way to support us when it wasn’t certain what kind of economic opportunities we would have.
A. Lukeman: We would like to express our gratitude to this community for being so supportive to weird small businesses and artists like us.
C. Lukeman: CU Adventures is here to stay. We are committed to keeping this ridiculous thing open.
A. Lukeman: And opening stronger and better on the other side of this.