Unfinished Business is NME’s new column about the weird and wonderful world of Early Access Games. This week, Rick Lane discovers the therapeutic pleasure to be found in PowerWash Simulator.
PowerWash Simulator is a baffling thing. It’s a game about starting your own power-washing business, where you spend the entire game cleaning the grime off cars, garden sheds, and patios with high-powered jets of water. In other words, the jobs you actively avoid doing in real life so you can pretend to be a monster hunter or a super-soldier or a grizzled murderdad with untreated psychological trauma.
It’s the kind of gimmicky simulation experience that litters Steam Early Access, the ones where normally you’d frown at the title, have a giggle at the screenshots, and then swiftly move on. Except PowerWash simulator is not some cobbled-together curio to extract a quick buck from a very specific audience. Published by Square Enix, it’s one of the top-selling Early Access games on Steam.
And it takes precisely two minutes of playing PowerWash Simulator to see why. Your first job in the game is to clean your newly purchased work van, which looks like it was rolled down the hillside of the local park where all the dogs do their business. It sounds tremendously unappealing. But when the stream of water from my powerwasher’s nozzle sliced through the muck covering the van’s driver door, revealing the gleaming blue paint underneath, well, I felt like Neo seeing the Matrix.
PowerWash Simulator is one of the most instantly gratifying games I’ve played. The tactile satisfaction it provides is easily the equivalent of stomping on an imp’s head in Doom Eternal. Developer FuturLab has clearly obsessed over the interaction between pressurized fluids and stubborn dirt, perfecting the effect of water flowing down a fence, creating bespoke audio effects for different configurations of jet-stream hitting different types of surfaces.
This isn’t the only way PowerWash Simulator demonstrates mastery over my lizard-brain either. Each object you clean is divided into different segments, with a meter in the top-left corner showing you how much dirt is still on that segment. When it drops to zero, that segment flashes blue, and a little “ch-ching” noise plays. Within half an hour of starting, I lived for that noise, and a little firework of joy would go off in my head whenever I heard it. It’s simple Skinner-box stuff, but it works.
There are also more interesting design ideas in PowerWash Simulator that I appreciate. Hitting TAB will highlight any dirt still clinging on a surface, helping you to clean up awkward nooks and crannies that you missed on your initial sweep. Helping you achieve this are a range of different hose nozzles. Some create a higher-pressure stream for blasting particularly stubborn bits of dirt, while others cause a wider spray for cleaning large, flat areas. My favourite feature of the game is how completing a job rewards you with a time-lapse video of your efforts, like a montage straight out of DIY SOS. It’s a fantastic way to cap off a job, a quickfire reminder of all the progress you’ve made.
Completing a job also earns you money, which you can use to upgrade your powerwashing equipment, buying extensions for greater reach, new nozzle types, or more powerful washers. In addition, completed jobs open-up new, bigger cleaning opportunities for you to pursue, like hosing down a filthy playpark, or scrubbing up a bungalow from the mould dimension. Some of these larger projects can be a little fiddly in places, especially if a job has lots of corners or rooftops that are difficult to access. In these moments, PowerWash Simulator just feels a bit too real, the fun straying too close to the hazard zone of actual work.
Indeed, my only real gripe with PowerWash Simulator is that it makes me feel bad about the state of my own house. There’s something slightly perverse in playing a game about cleaning back gardens while my own back garden slowly turns into the Forbidden Woods. Then again, I think this is also the appeal of PowerWash Simulator. The problem with cleaning in real life is that dirt always wins. No matter how pristine you get your kitchen, by tomorrow it’ll be covered in unwashed plates and splattered tomato juice and bits of onion, and you’ll have to do it all over again, because entropy sucks.
In the idealised world of PowerWash Simulator, there are no pets scurrying into your house with paws fresh from the slough of despond, no children scattering LEGO across your living room floor like a trap from Home Alone. The things that you clean remain clean forever, the dirt decals washed away by the soap of hard game logic. While gaming may offer countless more exotic fantasies, there are few more tangible than a home perpetually free of dirt. That’s why PowerWash Simulator is such an ingenious bit of escapism, letting you truly finish a task that, ultimately, will hound you till you die.