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 video game history, was found and interviewed by game historians Kate Willært and Kevin Bunch. Mai had left the games industry shortly after completing her first project, leaving historians and enthusiasts scrambling to find her when the importance of her contribution was fully realized years later.

In 1982, Texas 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 impressive sprite work for the VCS, but it also holds an important place in video game history: Billie Sue is one of the first female game protagonists we have on record, and is the first female protagonist named for appear on home consoles.

Willært and Bunch’s search for Mai was covered by a polygon feature by Patricia Hernandez last year, and the questions the report raises turn out to be surprisingly accurate. Hernandez points out that the custom of women changing surnames after marriage can lead to confusion for those who look back and try to match credit, and also posits that Mai’s co-workers may have misremembered her name.

Both assumptions turned out to be true: Van Mai’s maiden name, Van Tran, was reported as “Ban Tran” by Atari fan sites and later erroneously confirmed by former Apollo employees, making Willært and Bunch’s search difficult.

Aided by Discord members from the Video Game History Foundation, Bunch and Willært traced Texas bankruptcy records since Apollo’s closure, including records of royalty checks paid to programmers like Mai. Historians were able to find Mai and talk to her about Wabbit, as well as her life after the games.

In contrast to her relative obscurity in gaming history so far, Mai pursued a dynamic career after Apollo, earning a degree in Computer Science and applying her skills in fields such as telecommunications and banking.

Mai expressed some gratitude for the constraints of early game development and the way it prepared her for future coding work: “It taught me to write compact code, to write good code,” she explained to Bunch and Willært. “Later when I went to university, they didn’t care much about RAM or computer space. They had a lot. I think I’m a good coder because of that, because at the beginning there isn’t a lot of space to write your logic.” Mai also fondly remembers her time at Apollo and reminisced about the creative and collaborative environment there.

The mini-documentary on the Video Game History Foundation’s YouTube channel goes into more detail about Mai’s life and the crooked path to Apollo and Wabbit. Kate Willært runs a channel, A Critical Hit, about the history of games, with her Video Dames series helping to lead her into Mai’s story. Kevin Bunch is active on YouTube with his Atari Archive channeltelling the stories behind classic games for the publisher’s home consoles.

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