Stardew Valley has always given its players a choice: Support a local community center or opt to give boatloads of money to a fictionalized corporation called JojaMart.
To many that play the farming simulator, the JojaMart route appears to contradict a core premise of the game. Stardew Valley kicks off when the protagonist, a disillusioned office worker at JojaMart, inherits their late grandfather’s farm in the small community of Pelican Town. Throughout the process of building your farm, the player is given the choice between buying important upgrades to the town from JojaMart or by rebuilding a community center. To support JojaMart would be to betray your grandfather and to betray the opportunity to live a tranquil, pastoral lifestyle – one that’s free of the influence of massive corporations. Not to mention cheating Pierre out of some local business.
Because of this, the JojaMart route has always seemed like a sort of forbidden fruit, like the “wrong” way to play the game. At the time of publication, Steam showed approximately 3.5 percent of players have unlocked the achievement for completing the JojaMart route on Steam, compared to 18.7 percent which have restored the town community center. When one of my mentors got outed as a person who plays the JojaMart route online, another peer was quick to condemn him as a “monster.” Given this impression of the JojaMart route, I wanted to know what it was like to sell out. So what are those “monsters” like? It turns out that the JojaMart route might not betray the game’s original intentions, after all.
Owen Herriman is a fan of Stardew Valley, who has put over 300 hours into the game. He told Polygon he was “tickled” to chat about the fact that every time he’s played, he’s only ever done the JojaMart route. Harriman told Polygon over a Discord call that he felt “conflicted” about his choice to play the JojaMart route because he doesn’t like Walmart or Amazon. He lives in Seattle, and said that “[Amazon is] fuckin up my city.”
What pushed him towards playing that way was that it was an easier entry point that made some of the game’s more challenging aspects more accessible. Certain activities, like fishing, weren’t appealing to him. “Like, for me, it really just is the expedience of getting those upgrades and not having to go fishing a zillion times.” (Herriman is not alone in disliking fishing, one of the game’s most widely acknowledged pain points.) He attempts to balance his choice by supporting Pierre’s General Store. “I just buy my way through and sort of rationalize to myself that, ‘Well I buy all my seeds at the local shop. Like I’m not putting them out of business.’”
The conveniences that the JojaMart route affords are real. When you do the community center route, you progress the game by donating bundles of items that you grow, collect, and find while adventuring through the world. Many of these items require a great deal of grinding to acquire, as they’re season-dependent and rarely purchasable in-game. The community center route requires both going through a full season – the crops change through spring, summer, winter, and fall – and getting relatively good at every aspect of the game, including fishing and fighting. And completing each bundle unlocks a series of upgrades that advance the game, like mining carts that make travel between parts of the town faster, as well as the bus to Calico Desert.
In the JojaMart route, you just buy these upgrades, freeing you up to play the game in any way you’d like since you can make money selling any of the items. The community center becomes the Joja Warehouse. And that’s about it, in terms of changes to Pelican Town. There aren’t any major gameplay differences, and it’s not like doing the JojaMart route transforms Pelican Town into a gentrified husk of a small town. Everything stays the same regardless of which you pick, more or less. Although Shane, one of the JojaMart cashiers and a fan-favorite because of his sullen demeanor and grizzled face, does lose his job if you pick the community center.
Playing the JojaMart route mostly gives players time back for other activities, like making friends in the community, or pursuing activities like farming and foraging for their intrinsic enjoyment value. Similar to Herriman, Aimee Hart did the JojaMart route because she didn’t want to collect all the items. She always found it hard to multitask. But with JojaMart she had more time since she “didn’t feel the need to do all this stuff.”
For Hart, playing that route allowed her to spend her virtual days however she pleased, like fishing and bringing gifts like coffee to townspeople. “I guess in a way, Stardew Valley is a way of saying maybe you only deserve happiness if you toil on a farm. Which, you know, the interesting thing to take away from that.”
Not that this path is entirely without conflict. Hart said that she usually marries Abigail, the purple-haired daughter of the local shop owner named Pierre. (In other words, the local business is in competition with the larger JojaMart. “It felt wrong for me to do that to [Pierre]. Like, yeah, I’m marrying your daughter and also driving you out of business. My bad.”
At the end of the day, the JojaMart route is largely a convenience. But it’s also a convenience that doesn’t entirely conflict with the world of the game – despite the setup at the beginning of the story. Ironically, playing through the JojaMart route gives players more freedom and flexibility to pursue what they want, in line with the ethos of the game’s opening — though it comes at the price of being a corporate shill. Of course, you can play Stardew Valley however you want. But the community center route does lend itself to grinding and subsequent productivity dread.
When I played through the community route, I got so obsessed with checking off the next box and series of items, that I ended up thinking less about who I was exactly building the community center for. Besides, who am I to say that my multimillion gold-producing ranch is any benefit to the community when I literally don’t talk to anyone? At the end of the day, it seems like it’s more about how you engage with your community, rather than one singular individual choice you make to either do the community or JojaMart route.