There’s a moment that I think a lot of us go through where we have that spark of “adding voice acting to this would be really cool.” Sometimes it fades. Sometimes it takes root, and you can’t shake it. Sometimes this happens during NaNoRenO (or other visual novel game jams).
As a voice actor, EVN developer, and voice/casting director, I’ve been on all sides of this in both normal and jam-length development cycles. A lot can be said about implementing voice, but let’s look at how we approach it in such a short timeframe, specifically.
Consider Whether You REALLY Want Voice
Adding voice acting is one of those things that looks really great on the surface, then when you dig into the details of it, you see how complex and time-consuming it can be.
This is a (recently updated) slide from a panel on making visual novels I present at conventions.
Each “voiced line” is an individual audio file you have to cut, master, and organize. If you’re having the actors self-direct, you might only have to touch the editing side. If you’re trying to direct your voices (which gives you a better quality) someone on the team has to fulfill that position, and the actors can’t work concurrently. Either way, you could be looking at huge time commitments that you have to juggle between multiple people depending on the size of your game.
I highly recommend if this is your first NaNo/jam (even if it’s not your first game) to not do voice acting unless you’ve done it in another game before and know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. It is so easy to underestimate how much time it will take to do it right, and you want to do it right. Having bad or rushed voice acting can destroy your game.
Put it at the Outer Edges of Your Scope, Learn to Compromise
You can build a perfectly functional, perfectly lovely game without voice. People do it every day. Before you even entertain the idea of adding voice, make sure you have everything else covered and then some. Cutting voice at the last minute because you can’t get it all done might seem frustrating, but it will benefit the overall product.
Also, remember that there are levels of voice acting implementation. Full voice acting is every line of dialogue performed. Partial voice acting, however, only covers parts of the game and runs the gamut of complexity. You can just use vocables (grunts, sighs, laughs). You can have no vocables and fully acted important scenes. You can have a combination of the two with the addition of special callouts. There’s a lot of mixing and matching there, and that may be the better option for you to get quality work in such a short time.
Keep Your Schedule Tight
Let’s say you’re going for it, and you’re going to include full voice acting in your game. If you’re smart about it, you can recruit/audition actors pretty quickly and efficiently as long as everyone involved knows about the tight timeline. Fortunately, that’s something that can kind of go on in the background while you get the development kickstarted. However, you have to have dialogue ready very early in the development cycle to be able to get it to your actors with enough time to record, review, retake if necessary, edit, and implement. You won’t be able to make dialogue changes at the eleventh hour because there won’t be time to add or re-record.
So what should this calendar look like? I would budget at least a week for voice recording (no matter the size of the game) with a weekend on either side. People have jobs. They’re volunteering their voice and their time, and you have to be accomodating to that. Can you get a script done in a week and a half to two weeks? Assuming you start from the instant you get the first raw file from an actor, can you get the audio ready in enough time? Depends on the size of your team. If you have people dedicated to writing and voice, yeah, maybe you can do it. If you’re working it alone, that’s not going to be nearly as doable. That’s a hard decision, but only you can make it.
Remember, You Can Always Come Back to a Project
I made my first game for NaNoRenO. It ended up being fully voice-acted in the end, but I didn’t do that in the month of the game jam. Having audio drama production experience, I knew exactly how much work would would go into recording what basically amounted to a short film. I knew I couldn’t do that with myself. I made a fully functional, fairly polished game with two endings with the intention of adding a third route and voice acting as a “version 2” later in the year. I planned it that way right from the start, and it came out really well for my first venture into that specific territory.
You can do that. You can make a game, “win” the game jam, then come back through with a content patch later. There’s no rule that says you can’t do that, and it still abides by the spirit of the jam. Don’t push yourself and your project too far to abide by some imagined version of what you think a jam game “should” look like. As long as you’re learning, pushing your abilities, and making a quality product, you’ve accomplished what the jam intends.