Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
I moved this week, which was a mistake—at least, in terms of the discrepancy between the number of cardboard boxes I wanted to lift (one, at maximum, and only if it contained Cheerios), versus how many I actually did. (All of them. I have lifted all of the cardboard boxes.) The thing about moving that you forget, because our brains like to do this thing where they block out real abject horror, is how many individual tasks it comprises. One does not “move;” one “packs up the kitchen,” “packs up the bathroom,” “cleans the bathroom,” “oh god, how did we let the bathroom get this bad,” etc. And all of these tasks add up, like so many map icons accruing on the cartography of an Assassin’s Creed game. Or, to strip out any kind of life-giving metaphor: Like the list of chores that you’ll see in any one of several video games that have come out lately about, well… doing chores. Literal chores. As in, I relaxed from cleaning all the grime off my old house this week by sitting down at my computer, and cleaning the digital grime off of a bunch of virtual houses. And also a dirt bike.
I’m talking, of course, about PowerWash Simulator, the game that’s sweeping—pun—the Steam nation of late. Operating in a mold set by games like House Flipper or Car Mechanic Simulator, PowerWash has a premise as simple as the title: Here is a very dirty thing (a car, a house, a giant boot). Here is a power washer with a set of versatile nozzles. Here is some money we will give you to apply the latter to the former. And while this both sounds, and is, boring, it’s also kind of cathartic: The thing starts very dirty, see, but then—whoosh. And it’s clean. I accomplish something every time I boot it up, and if I doubt that fact, well, the game plays a very cool little stop-motion GIF of all the grime coming off the stegosaurus slide or whatever when I’m done.
At the same time, PowerWash feels like the apex of a trend that’s been developing in gaming for a while, a normcore-ish stripping away of artifice or high concept in favor of chasing the highs of very basic accomplishments. After all, Viscera Clean-Up Duty was doing something very similar all the way back in 2014, asking you to do “clean up the dirty place” gameplay, but setting it in the aftermath of a stereotypical first-person shooter. Or compare it to, say, Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a game that’s also about performing manual labor while unseen bosses nag you, but which at least has the courtesy of setting its dangerous tedium in space, where you might potentially explosively decompress yourself to death. PowerWash, though, revels in the mundane; it doesn’t even have the flair of a House Flipper’s decoration mode, or the subversive thrills of Thief Simulator. It literally gave me flashbacks to trying to clean some massive stupid thing when I was a kid, constantly asking my mom whether the back patio was “clean enough,” whatever the hell that meant.
Maybe that’s what I like about it—especially as I wander through the labyrinth of boxes and old memories that currently fill my new digs. If PowerWash Simulator tells me some piece of playground equipment or old car is now clean—courtesy of me and my magical water gun—then I can be damn sure it’s clean. With everything in my life in flux at the moment, that certainty can be a comfort. I may not know where any of my charging cables or my toothbrush are, but at least I know exactly how much of this goddamn gutter I still have to clean before the game will tell me that I’m good. That simple external validation during trying, complicated times blessedly absolves me of the need to think about the hard or messy things in my life. And in that mindlessness, I find relief, and a sense of peace.
Hey, wait: Is PowerWash Simulator a cult? Aw, fu—