For over a year, the Video Game History Foundation has been trying to track down the creator of Wabbit, an Atari 2600 game released in 1982 by Texas developer Apollo that has an interesting place in video game history: it's the first console game to star a female protagonist.
Its creator, whose name was misremembered by former colleagues as a Vietnamese-American woman named "Ban Tran," hasn't ever spoken publicly about her work. That seems to be because for years, no one knew her actual name or how to contact her. Thanks to some detective work from the VGHF, we now know who she is.
Meet Van Mai (née Tran)—a refugee of the Vietnam War, computer programmer, and creator of what many historians regard as one of Apollo's finest games: Wabbit, in which a young girl defends her vegetable patch from an army of rabbits.
Mai's story and the tale of how the VGHF tracked her down is a fascinating read, intersecting with the volatile '80s computing business and poor-record keeping from an era of bankrupt startups. The Foundation was only able to uncover her identity by researching court cases tied to Apollo's bankruptcy. Mai, like many of her former colleagues, could only secure her final paycheck by going through the courts.
It was the last line of paperwork that connected her to her seminal creation. And today, she can share her story.
The VGHF's breakdown of Wabbit and the company that created it highlights how individual employees at the company were responsible for creating its games, though they worked in teams to give feedback and collaborate on early principles of game design. Mai credited her time at Apollo with helping her with her later computing career, because she learned how to make games like Wabbit work with only 4 kilobytes of memory.
"It taught me how to write compact code, to write good code," she told VGHF. "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 pretty good coder because of that, because in the beginning, there wasn’t much room to write your logic, and you have to write good logic because of space."
Mai also shared her thinking for how she engineered the unusually colorful protagonist—in order to make the walking animation work, she layered two player sprites over each other that each made up different parts of the character.
"If you looked at her walking sideways, she moves her arms like (she’s) normal walking," she explained. "And I think the reason why I put white color in the shoulder portion of her shirt was so that it will distinguish her arm’s movement against her red/orange shirt."
Mai told VGHF that after Apollo, she spent a brief time at Atari 5200 game developer Micrographic Image before leaving the video game business. She went to college in California, then returned to Texas to work as an Oracle developer at a French telecommunications company. Now, she's in the banking industry.
Would Mai ever make a return to games? She's thought about it—though she told VGHF that her time away from programming and the wide array of tools developers have access "pose a hurdle."
Still, her story is a great read, and it's exciting to meet new industry pioneers who are with us today.