After 40 years, the creator of one of gaming's first female protagonists has been found
Van Mai, creator of one of the first female protagonists in videogame history, has been found and interviewed by gaming historians Kate Willært and Kevin Bunch. Mai had left the games industry shortly after completing her first project, leaving historians and enthusiasts struggling to find her when the importance of her contribution was fully realized years later.
In 1982, Texas-based developer Apollo released a game called Wabbit for the Atari 2600 (also known as the Video Computer System or VCS). Wabbit is a shooter where you take control of a young girl, Billie Sue, as she fends off marauding rabbits from her carrot patch. It was well-received at the time, and had some impressive sprite work for the VCS, but also holds an important place in videogame history: Billie Sue is one of the very first female game protagonists we have on record, and is the first named female protagonist to appear on home consoles.
Willært and Bunch's search for Mai was covered in a Polygon feature by Patricia Hernandez last year, and the issues that report raises prove startlingly accurate. Hernandez points out that the custom of women changing last names after marriage can lead to confusion for those looking back and trying to match up credits, and also postulates that Mai's coworkers could have misremembered her name.
Both suppositions proved true: Van Mai's maiden name of Van Tran was reported as "Ban Tran" by Atari fan sites and then mistakenly confirmed by former Apollo employees, hindering Willært and Bunch's search.
Aided by members of the Video Game History Foundation's Discord, Bunch and Willært tracked down Texas bankruptcy records from the closure of Apollo, including records of royalty checks paid to programmers like Mai. The historians were able to find Mai and talk to her about Wabbit, as well as her life after games.
Contrasting her relative obscurity in gaming history until now, Mai went on to pursue a dynamic career after Apollo, earning a degree in Computer Science and applying her skills to fields such as telecommunications and banking.
Mai expressed a certain gratitude for the constraints of early game development and the way it prepared her for future work in coding: "It taught me to write compact code, to write good code," she explained to Bunch and Willært. "Later on, when I went to University, they didn't care much about RAM or computer space. They had plenty. I think I'm a good coder because of that, because in the beginning there's not much room to write your logic." Mai also fondly recalls her time at Apollo, and reminisced about the creative, collaborative environment there.
The mini-documentary on the Video Game History Foundation's YouTube channel goes into greater detail about Mai's life and circuitous path to Apollo and Wabbit. Kate Willært runs a channel, A Critical Hit, on gaming history, with her Video Dames series having helped lead her to Mai's story. Kevin Bunch is active on YouTube with his Atari Archive channel, telling the stories behind classic games for the publisher's home consoles.