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The Calming Catharsis of ‘PowerWash Simulator’

Exquisitely soothing aesthetics, a gentle learning curve, and deceptive depth make a game about cleaning off objects one of the best titles of 2022

Getty Images/Square Enix/Ringer illustration

I’ve just spent more than two hours cleaning every nook and cranny of a filthy, rusted Ferris wheel, and I feel incredible. The newly immaculate carnival ride is now absolutely sparkling in the sun: All 32 massive support beams are glistening and spotless, as are all 180 lightbulbs, as well as the 119 vertical slats of the fence surrounding the structure. I cleaned all of these individual elements and many more, my ears blanketed by the soothing white noise of gallons upon gallons of water pinging off various surfaces at high speeds. Of course, I didn’t actually clean anything in real life. That wouldn’t be fun at all. I cleaned this Ferris wheel in PowerWash Simulator, a video game by British developer FuturLab.

Released in mid-July on Xbox platforms (Xbox One, Series S/X, and Game Pass) after more than a year in early access on Steam, PowerWash Simulator is the latest entry in the burgeoning genre of “simulator” games that allow players to take part in a virtual recreation of some seemingly mundane activity. Road Maintenance Simulator, Bus Simulator, Lawn Mowing Simulator, Farming Simulator, and many more have been released in the past few years. There’s no single developer or publisher pumping out these “simulators,” so the quality and feel of the games vary. None of them, however, has come close to generating the tremendous buzz that PowerWash Simulator has spurred within the gaming community.

Earlier this week, when I told a few Call of Duty: Warzone stans that my favorite first-person shooter of the year is PowerWash Simulator, they laughed heartily. Then one of them asked, “What do you do in that game? You just … wash things?”

Hell, yeah. You just wash things. There’s no health bar, there’s no time limit, and you have unlimited water. Things are dirty, so you wash them. In execution, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. You can choose from multiple power washers, which come with a handful of nozzles and distance extenders and a bevy of soaps suited for various surface types. You might be surprised to learn that for a game in which you “just wash things,” every single button on the Xbox controller is utilized, including different functions mapped to all four directions of the D-pad. If you were to look at only the controller while someone is playing PowerWash Simulator, you might assume that you were watching them operate a more traditional first-person shooter.

You’re constantly changing nozzles as you balance your spray power and stream spread, periodically rotating the nozzle 90 degrees as you deftly trace around surfaces. You’re going to need to crouch or even go prone to hit the bottom of the monster truck with the soap specifically designed for metal surfaces. Just don’t forget to cycle back to your distance extender before you try to hit the roof with enough power to remove dirt in one pass but enough spread to keep the process from feeling tedious. If you really get deep into the mechanics, PowerWash Simulator can be as engrossing as any other first-person shooter without ever asking you to shoot at anyone (aside from the garden gnomes sprinkled throughout the game). As preposterous as this may sound, an enjoyable story also slowly emerges throughout PowerWash Simulator but the less you know about that in advance, the better. Although it might seem like the charm of digital power washing would wear off quickly, the game is captivating for the full 25 hours or so it takes to finish the story. My partner and I have probably put almost 40 hours into it, if not more.

Somewhat surprisingly, I’m not the only person staying up past 3 in the morning as my avatar lies prone on the floor of a bathroom, attempting to clean a urinal. Approximately 44,000 people are following PowerWash Simulator on Twitch, and during the peak power washing period on Steam, more than 10,000 people were playing concurrently, with nearly 90,000 watching on Twitch. According to estimates on SteamDB, a million or more people may have bought the budget-priced game on that platform, and almost 98 percent of the user reviews are positive. Not only are people from all over the world playing PowerWash Simulator, but a ton of people are watching other people play PowerWash Simulator. You may ask yourself, “So they’re just watching other people wash things? They’re not even washing things themselves?” Yeah, they’re just watching people wash things.

While most video games are very active, high-energy experiences, PowerWash Simulator is exquisitely calming. There is no music in the game until you roll credits, so it’s quiet in a way that makes playing it feel similar to watching low-stakes golf on TV. You’ll sometimes hear a gentle wind or a distant bird call, but if there are other things happening in this world, they are far, far away. It’s just you and your power washer out there completely removed from time, with no one else in sight. You can play this game while listening to a podcast, or while fully engaging in a conversation with someone. It can be a bit of a fidget spinner if you want it to be—just something to do with your hands while your mind is elsewhere. Or you can play it with intense focus, putting effort into discovering more efficient ways to clean different shapes and surfaces.

The complete lack of any urgency in this game makes it a fantastic training tool for anyone who’s ever been intimidated by the modern first-person control scheme of moving your character with the controller’s left stick while looking around with the right stick. If you know someone who has tried to play Halo, only to end up being repeatedly killed while spinning in circles looking up at the ceiling, this is the game for them. There is no way to fail in PowerWash Simulator. Even if you’re slow, in career mode the game will never confront you with a “clear time” for a level. By removing the prospect of failure or judgment, the game invites novices to learn the controls at their own pace and develop the skill and confidence to play an entire world of games that had previously felt out of reach.

Prior to playing PowerWash Simulator, my year of gaming had been headlined by a couple of brutally difficult games. I finished both Elden Ring and Sifu, two games in which failure is not only expected, but central to the experience. These games destroy you and force you to either adapt your approach or give up in a violent whirlwind of frustration. In the past, I tended to avoid extremely difficult games in the same way that I avoid the hottest of hot chicken. Ultimately, I still want to enjoy what I’m doing. But Elden Ring and Sifu were phenomenal games that teach a valuable lesson of perseverance—that we’re defined by our successes, not our failures. The pathway to that lesson, of course, is bombarding the player with so much failure that one can’t help but come away somewhat immunized to it. PowerWash Simulator, which I can also easily call one of my favorite games of the year, opts to remove failure completely, and delivers a vastly different yet equally powerful gaming experience.

No matter the length or difficulty of your gaming résumé, PowerWash Simulator can be cathartic and soothing, cleansing in more ways than one. Real life can slowly but inexorably become chaotic and entropic. Objects or relationships that we once treasured can get so degraded that we don’t even remember what they used to be like. Maybe the cushioning on your good headphones is falling apart, or your bond with your cousin isn’t what it once was, or you’ve lost confidence in the dependability of your once trustworthy car. This game obviously can’t fix those things. But whatever is put in front of you in PowerWash Simulator, there is never any doubt: You can fix it. You can fix it your way and at your pace, and when you’re done, it’s brand new again. And for a little while, at least, you can forget about everything that you can’t fix. You can give your brain time to totally disconnect from worry and consequence.

So really, you don’t “just wash things” in PowerWash Simulator. You defy time and age, and you make everything around you better. You tell all the ugliness to fuck right off, and you make things beautiful, the way they’re supposed to be, one lightbulb or fence slat at a time.