REPOD Episode 4: Escape Room Storytelling Through Spectacle, CU Adventures Anne & Chris Lukeman

In episode 4, we chat with Chris and Anne, owners of the escape room company CU Adventures in Time & Space in Urbana, Illinois. Chris and Anne’s game design has a very thoughtful cinematic quality to it, full of spectacle, surprise reveals, and smooth narrative flow.

After learning about their background in indie filmmaking and their love of kitsch, horror, roadside attractions, and fantasy scavenger hunts, all the pieces fell into place. Chris and Anne have a strong aesthetic vision that becomes apparent the minute you play any one of their wonderful games.

We really loved rummaging around in their brains, and we hope you’ll enjoy all the stories and tidbits we discovered.

man and woman posing next to a sign that says CU Adventures in Time and Space

Episode 4

Episode Summary

In this episode, David and Peih-Gee chat with Chris and Anne Lukeman, owners of the escape room company CU Adventures and the escape room shirt company Solve Our Shirts.

We talk about how a trip to Wisconsin and to two attractions in particular “opened their eyes to a level of weird that became a commercial business.” Those attractions were Wizard Quest, a fantasy-themed scavenger hunt and House on the Rock, which Anne describes as a “skyscraper hobbit-hole of kitsch.” We learn about their background in indie filmmaking and how it has influenced their escape room design process. As part of his design philosophy, Chris says that anywhere in one of their escape rooms, “it should feel like a picturesque, lived-in space, and either tell part of the story, inform part of the puzzle, or be weird, or be funny. It HAS to do one of those things.”

They talk to us about the pros and cons of operating in a smaller community. We find out why they decided to release their remote game Lost Temple as a print-and-play. David and Peih-Gee gush over Solve Our Shirts, their latest project, which is an escape room in a t-shirt. Chris and Anne tell us about their plans to expand with a fantasy-themed mini-golf course with additional gamification, a bar, and gaming rooms.

Reality Escape Pod mission patch logo depicts a spaceship puncturing through the walls of reality.

Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • Anne and Chris tell us how a trip to Wisconsin in 2012, and visits to two different attractions in particular “opened their eyes to a level of weird that became a commercial business.” [1:09]
  • One of the attractions was Wizard Quest, a scavenger hunt that takes place in a large immersive fantasy-themed space. [1:40]
Indoor playground with fantasy themes including a castle, unicorn and slides.
Wizard Quest
  • The second attraction was The House on the Rock, which Anne describes as a “skyscraper hobbit-hole of kitsch.” [4:55] 
An assortment of strange animatronic musical instruments.
Animatronic(?) Musical Instruments – Image via Atlas Obscura
The gaping maw of a giant sperm whale sculpture.
Giant Sperm Whale – Image via Atlas Obscura
A massive infinity mirror illusion.
Infinity Mirror Illusion – Image via Atlas Obscura
  • We learn about Anne and Chris’ background in spectacle-based, indie filmmaking, and how they met in college. [9:30]
  • They tell us about how they actually crossed paths at a Bruce Campbell book-signing event 6 years before they officially met. [10:30]
  • Chris talks about how his background in production and set design has influenced his escape rooms [12:20]
  • As part of his design philosophy, Chris says that if a player stands in any part of his escape rooms, “it should feel like a picturesque, lived-in space, and either tell part of the story, inform part of the puzzle, or be weird, or be funny. It HAS to do one of those things.” [13:11]
  • Anne talks about how their games typically follow a three-act structure similar to a play or a movie, and how it typically corresponds to three different spaces. [14:10]
  • One of the things that CU Adventures takes pride in doing well is accommodating both newcomers and experienced players. [15:40]
  • They don’t create rooms of varying difficulty. Instead, they prefer to adjust difficulty level on the fly via the hint system, gamemaster interaction, or by swapping out a puzzle. [16:16]
  • We talk about the length of escape room games and discuss unsatisfying conclusions to escape rooms. [17:15]
  • Anne and Chris tell us that none of their games end with unlocking a door. They discuss why their games don’t end with an “escape back to reality.” [19:13]
  • Anne and Chris discuss the pros and cons of operating in a smaller community. [20:50]
  • Anne and Chris tell us about their traveling rooms, which are mobile, large-scale escape rooms that they created for special events like GenCon. [23:25]
  • We talk about their digital games, Floor 13 and The Lost Temple, and their roots in old-school point-and-click adventure games, including Monkey Island, 90’s MUDs (multi-user dungeon) and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time [26:45]
  • Anne and Chris talk about their decision to release The Lost Temple as a print-and-play digital game instead of as an avatar livestream game. [28:50]
  • We chat about Solve Our Shirts, of which David and Peih-Gee are both big fans. [32:35]
  • Anne tells us about how they were able to pivot from an escape room company to manufacturing and fulfillment of a physical product. [34:10]
Model wearing teal t-shirt with the puzzles removed.
Solve Our Shirts – Image via CU Adventures
  • We talk about the hint system in Solve Our Shirts and how hinting and cluing is an art form when done well. [36:30]
  • Anne and Chris talk about their plans for expanding, which included a fantasy themed mini-golf course with additional gamification, a bar, escape rooms, and gaming rooms. [40:10]

Resources

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Mentioned in this Episode

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Guest Bio

Chris and Anne Lukeman, owners of CU Adventures in Time & Space and Solve Our Shirts

Chris & Anne Lukeman are owners of CU Adventures, an escape room company located in Urbana, IL. In addition to their in-person games, they have also hosted large-scale pop-up escape rooms at Gen Con Indy, and developed the digital/print-and-play hybrid games The Lost Temple and Floor 13. Their newest game is Solve our Shirts, a full-length at-home escape room where all the clues are on a t-shirt!

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