Video game historian Kevin Bunch remembers sending a dozen letters over the mail in 2019, each addressed to the same name. The white envelopes traveled to various addresses in Texas, some reached their destination safely, others returned with a light yellow remark: “RETURN TO SENDER. TRIED – NOT KNOWN. REPLACED TO CONTINUE. ”
But even the letters that did did not find their true purpose. The post may have been opened by people with the exact name Bunch had written down, sure, but they were not the specific person he and many others have been trying to track down for over a decade now.
Her name is Ban Tran, and I guess you have no idea who she is or what she has to do with video games. It̵
It is true that the gaming industry is notoriously lousy at preserving its own history. Even modern games can be lost to the airwaves when services are discontinued or titles stop being printed or supported. It’s even worse the further you go back, especially when it comes to women. It is not just that women in technology are routinely overlooked, although it certainly plays a role in this mystery. It is that cultural norms around marriage make it more difficult to keep track of them.
“One of the hardest parts about writing about women in game history,” says game historian Kate Willaert, “when they take a new name after publishing some work, and suddenly their body part is split in two, or it gets ‘deleted’ ‘. complete.”
Some women in the gaming industry tell Polygon that they have purposefully kept the last name after getting married, because existing credits in broadcast games refer to them in a certain way. Should these women divorce, credit becomes a nightmare between what legal papers say, what the internet prints, and what a gambling credit list does. There are measures to help strengthen identities, with industry websites such as MobyGames showing different aliases for game developers. But some women will not take the chance – not in an industry where gaming credit determines whether you get the next job or not.
“I feel it should have nothing to say,” said one developer, “but in this industry you never know.”
Another wrinkle here is that Ban Tran is a very common Vietnamese name; in Texas alone, the white pages show over 100 results. Bunch tried to send letters only to people who could theoretically fit the age group, but it still leaves plenty of room for error.
Why look for Ban Tran in the first place? Let’s start with a pop quiz. Who is the first female character in video games? Many will say Mrs. Pac-Man, but she’s not an actual person – she does not even have her own name. Truthfully, it’s hard to figure out who’s going to get the credit here, because it depends entirely on what criteria you use, and whether we’re considering whole arcade games, consoles and PC games or not.
“The first playable female character on screen is probably in an arcade game of [game developer] Exidy called Result, ”Said Willaert. This too was almost lost over time. There is no way to play the game anymore and there are no screenshots of it Result Online. Print ads or flyers promoting the game do not actually show what Result looks like. We only know what is in the game from descriptions in trade magazines, which according to Willaert say that the game is a “battle between the sexes.”
“We can not even find a work cabinet, even if a few Exidy collectors and historians keep an eye on it,” Willaert said.
If Mrs. Pac-Man is excluded, and there is little evidence of that Result existed, the second best example is a game called Wabbit. Released in 1982 by Texan developer Apollo, Wabbit is a title on the Atari 2600 that holds the distinction between being the first console game with a named playable female character that is not off screen. IN Wabbit, you control Billie Sue as she tries to protect her carrot crops from annoying rabbits. It is a shooting game where you try to compete against the rabbits for a high score.
“It’s colorful, it has these pretty identifiable objects on the screen, it’s fast, and it’s pretty unique,” Bunch said. “Wabbit is probably one of the best games the company released. ”
WabbitExistence is a curiosity not only because of what it depicts, but in how it came to be. According to Willaert’s research, Ban Tran was hired by Apollo after sending some “outrageous” game concepts to the company – ideas that were far beyond the capacity of video game hardware at the time. Despite his outlandish ideas, or perhaps because of them, Tran got an interview.
We do not know what Trans’ background in technology was before this, but she must have had some experience, because she jumped right in and made a game on her own. While a former worker said that Apollo did not require experience to join, Trans surprised the quick ability to come up with “intense” game concepts around them, especially since there were not many women who made games at the time. Also, Bunch noted, “The [Atari 2600] is not an easy machine to develop for! ”
No matter where Tran came from, her time at Apollo did not last. The company went bankrupt about a year later, and while Tran stuck out for a while working on other projects, no one knows what happened to her next. She can still not be in Texas, and she can still not pass Ban Tran. Is she still at all?
Willaert is determined to find out, because she’s in the middle of producing a 50-piece YouTube series about playable female protagonists.
“Most of these characters are treated as footnotes in game history – if they are mentioned at all – so I wanted to challenge myself to dig up enough information to give each one a ‘chapter’ in this series,” said Willaert .
She has been working on this project for a decade now, which is also about as long as she and other internet sleuths have been trying to find Tran. So far, despite tapping on other game historians, calling out on social media and sending many physical letters, the search for Tran has hit a wall. We can not ask Tran about Wabbit was affected by the existence of Space Invaders, or what her other wild ideas apparently were. We do not know what she continued with, or if she is still in technology. We do not even know if she is still called Ban Tran.
Willaert and Bunch have many more questions, because what little we know is completely flimsy. First-hand accounts from the few Apollo developers with an online presence do not even remember who she was, exactly, other than knowing that she was Vietnamese and determined to be hired. These developers assume that she must be called Ban Tran, because that’s what fan sites say her name is. But they are not sure; they do not quite remember. Where did the fan pages get their name in the first place? As Result in front of her hangs Trans contribution to video games by a thread.
“She seems to have become something of a ghost,” Bunch said.