Van Mai, the creator of one of the first female protagonists in video game history, has been found and interviewed by game historians Kate Willært and Kevin Bunch. Mai had left the game industry shortly after completing her first project, leaving historians and enthusiasts struggling to locate 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 charge of a young girl, Billie Sue, as she fends off marauding rabbits from her carrot field. It was well-received at the time and featured impressive sprite work for the VCS, but also occupies an important place in video game history: Billie Sue is one of the very first female protagonists we recorded, and is the first-named female protagonist to appear on home consoles to appear.
Willært and Bunch’s search for Mai was covered by Patricia Hernandez in a Polygon feature last year, and the problems the report raises prove surprisingly accurate. Hernandez points out that women’s habit of changing their last name after marriage can lead to confusion among those looking back and trying to match the credits, and also argues that Mai’s coworkers could be misremembering her name.
Both assumptions proved true: Van Mai’s maiden name Van Tran was reported by Atari fan sites as “Ban Tran” and then mistakenly confirmed by former Apollo employees, hindering Willært and Bunch’s search.
Aided by members of Discord from the Video Game History Foundation, Bunch and Willært tracked down Texas bankruptcy filings from the Apollo shutdown, including files 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 the games.
In contrast to her relative obscurity in gaming history until now, 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 limitations of early game development and the way it prepared her for future coding: “It taught me to write compact code, 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 enough. I guess that’s why I’m a good coder because in the beginning there isn’t 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 takes a closer look at Mai’s life and circuitous path to Apollo and Wabbit. Kate Willært runs a channel, A Critical Hit, about gaming history, and her Women’s Video series has led 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.