Van Mai, creator of one of the earliest female protagonists in video game history, has been discovered and interviewed Written by game historians Kate Willært and Kevin Bunch. Mai left the game industry shortly after completing her first project, and when the significance of her contributions was fully realized a few years later, historians and enthusiasts alike sought her out.
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 control a young girl, Billie Sue, as she fends off predatory bunnies in a carrot field. It was wildly popular at the time, and produced some impressive sprite work for the VCS, but it also has an important place in video game history: Billie Sue is one of our first female game protagonists on record, and the first A named heroine appeared on the home console.
Willært and Bunch looking for Mai polygon feature Last year, Patricia Hernandez’s report raised questions that proved surprisingly accurate. Hernandez points out that the custom of women changing their surnames after marriage can lead to confusion for those looking back and trying to match credits, assuming that Mai’s colleagues may have misremembered her name.
Both hypotheses turned out to be correct: Van Mai’s maiden name, Van Tran, was reported by Atari fan sites as “Ban Tran” and then falsely identified by former Apollo employees, hindering Willært and Bunch’s searches.
With the help of Discord members of the Video Game History Foundation, Bunch and Willært traced the bankruptcy records in Texas after the Apollo shutdown, including records of royalty checks paid to programmers such as Mai. Historians were able to find Mai and talk to her about Wabbit and her life after the game.
In contrast to her relative obscurity in gaming history thus far, Mai went on to pursue a dynamic career after Apollo, earning a degree in computer science and applying her skills to areas such as telecommunications and banking.
Mai is somewhat grateful for the constraints of early game development and the way it prepared her for future coding jobs: “It taught me to write compact code, to write good code,” she explained to Bunch and Willært . “Later, when I went to college, they didn’t care much about RAM or computer space. They had a lot. I thought I was a good coder because there wasn’t a lot of space to write your logic in the beginning.” Mai also affectionately Thinking back to her time at Apollo and the creative, collaborative environment there.
this Mini Documentary Mai’s life and the circuitous path to Apollo and Wabbit are covered in more detail on the Video Game History Foundation’s YouTube channel. Kate Willært runs a channel, fatal blow, about game history, and her Video Dames series helped her understand Mai’s story. Kevin Bunch is active on YouTube, his Atari Archive Channelwhich tells the stories behind classic games for publishers’ home consoles.