The Champaign-Urbana area is now home to three escape room venues: C-U Adventures in Time and Space, Brainstorm Escapes, and the newest, Way Out Escape Rooms, located in Tolono. Tom Mohr, owner of Way Out Escape Rooms, talked to me about his business and his love of live action puzzles.

Smile Politely: How did Way Out Escape Rooms get started?

Mohr: A friend of mine works at C-U Adventures in Time and Space, so when it opened I went over and tried one of their rooms. I immediately felt in love with the whole concept. I kept going back to Time and Space, and also to Brainstorm, but since the rooms are so elaborate, they don’t rotate much. I wanted to do more puzzles, but I realized that the next closest escape room is in Bloomington. I created Way Out Escape Rooms for people like me, who can’t get enough of escape rooms and want more.

After coming up with the idea, I partnered with Matt Talbot, who owns this great building on Bourne Street that he wasn’t using. He works on getting the building up to snuff, and I design the stories and the puzzles. All of this has happened very quickly. It was in April that I emailed him to introduce the idea. Last Wednesday we started play tests, and June 11 we are going live.

SP: How do you design an escape room? What do you think about when you’re putting it together?

Mohr: One thing that I love about escape rooms is that they really pull you into a scene and take you to a different place. I wanted to come up with something believable, so I’ve created a room where everything that you’re working on could be found in an everyday space: an apartment. There are cooking supplies, a desk, clothes, appliances. All of those things are usable—you can manipulate them during the puzzle—and all of them come into the story, or could potentially be part of it. The space is very tangible, and everything is part of the game, so you can really immerse you in the space.

SP: Can you tell me any details about the game?

Mohr: The concept is that you work at a major tech corporation, and you have a coworker named Jim. You started at the same time; he’s a nice guy. But as time went on, he started acting weird. He got to be standoffish and start missing work a lot. At the beginning of the game, you are going to his apartment to check on him and make sure he’s okay. Once you arrive, you get some more information, which sets off the game. 

SP: Escape rooms are obviously becoming very popular in C-U. What do you think it is about them that fascinates people?

Mohr: I think there are a lot of different things. They’re interactive. You get to play with things. I experienced a lot of joy when I first walked into an escape room because I could dig into things, look under things, take things off the wall, flip through the books. Anything is a possibility. That takes me back to being 5 or 6 years old, when you can mess with everything. Escape rooms are also very social because you do them with friends. And the challenge aspect of them is extremely intriguing. They provide a mental challenge that you can’t find in many other kinds of entertainment. When you go to a movie, you enjoy it, but you just sit there and experience it. In an escape room you get to be part of the experience and become a team with your friends. During the game, you talk about the information and how to move forward; afterward, whether you succeed or fail, you talk about how you could have done better. 

SP: You’ve talked a lot about the materiality of escape rooms. They sound like of like real-life video games. 

Mohr: Yes. I’m 30. For people my age and those about 10 years older or younger than me, we grew up playing vide games, so escape rooms probably feel like childhood in real life. They’re virtual reality without the virtual. So I think there is some nostalgia for childhood in the experience, but also something that’s even cooler than virtual reality because you get to be in the experience.

SP: You’ve talked about how you really admire the other escape rooms in the area, C-U Adventures in Time and Space and Brainstorm Escapes. What distinguishes your escape room?

Mohr: Each place is going to be a different experience because each room is such a different atmosphere. The apartment in the room I’ve designed is very unique because it’s very modern; it even has a little technology. In some ways, I created it for people like me, who have done all the rooms in the area but want more. I see it as adding to the great scene we already have in Champaign-Urbana.

Way Out Escape Rooms opens June 11. Hours are 5, 7, and 9 p.m. on Mondays-Thursdays, with additional times on the weekends. Games are $20/adults and $17.50/students. Way Out also offers group discounts and teambuilding opportunities for businesses.