Game of Thrones threw down its most ambitious episode in season 8 episode 3, as the Night King finally brings his army to the walls of Winterfell. Called The Long Night, it was the clash we were all waiting for, a pivotal moment in the saga that Game of Thrones has become.
While trying to dodge spoilers on social media, two clear threads emerged: firstly the overwhelmingly positive that it was an episode of epic proportions, secondly - and negatively - that it was too dark to see what was happening. It spawned #gameofmoans, as people complained they couldn't see anything.
Why is it so dark?
Let's start with something called narrative. While everyone might want action in every frame, it's the director who has control of the narrative. Wired spoke to the cinematographer behind the episode, Fabian Wagner, who defended the episode's presentation:
"Another look would have been wrong," he says. "Everything we wanted people to see is there."
Spin that into the detail of the episode and the darkness hides the enemy. You can't see what's coming, until it's right in your face. Artistically, it puts the viewer in the position of the defenders we're supporting, drawing you into the narrative, to great effect.
That's reflected in scenes of light too - the lighting of the trench, for example, which not only brings relief from the battle, but from the oppressive darkness of the episode for the viewer. That's something that Game of Throne's creators discuss in the behind the scenes above - it's supposed to be really dark, rather than just slightly dark.
But there's darkness and then there's not being able to see anything.
Darkness is streaming's Sword of Damocles
Streaming has completely shaken up how we consume content, but dark scenes hang over the convenience that streaming offers like the Sword of Damocles - and it all comes down to data and compression. The Long Night is a perfect example of where data really matters.
Take a look at the photo above. That's a close-up of a typical stream of Game of Thrones, paused and photographed. It's been lightened slightly, but you can see the blockiness and lines where there's a lack of data. It's the old digital problem - not enough data to complete the picture. The light of the face has plenty of preserved data so has lots of detail, but in the darkness, you just get irregularities.
This image is on a 4K TV, but the resolution becomes irrelevant when there's nothing to display - you'll see similar on an 8K TV, a phone or iPad, just as you'll encounter problems whether you have an LED or OLED TV. Display technology isn't the magic bullet to fix this problem.
Not all streams are equal, of course. In the UK, Sky's version is better than Now TV - but having watched both the Sky transmission and Now TV, Sky still has problems, like banding in the colours and lines where, again, there isn't the data to complete the picture. In the US, Amazon's version is better than HBO, but all fall down: streaming services aren't providing the data that people need to watch this episode.
The data rate you get from your streaming service is governed by several factors - there's the maximum bitrate the service provides (10Mbps for Amazon US, 5Mbps for HBO Go, as this thread discusses) and then there's the variable bitrate that services use to make sure your content keeps playing and you avoid buffering. If you're watching at peak times and broadband usage is high in your area, then the service may drop in quality to avoid buffering. What happens when it drops the quality? That's right, it serves you less data.
A Blu-ray by contrast has a bitrate of 40Mbps, while Ultra HD Blu-ray steps that up again. That's a vast difference in the quantity of image data available to the display and it's perhaps the best justification for optical discs we've seen in recent years. Streaming has always been about convenience over absolute quality and in this episode, it's quality that you need.
Isn't this about not having your TV setup properly?
No, it's really about a lack of data, but if your TV isn't well setup, you'll not be getting the most from it visually. Here are some things you can do to improve the viewing experience now.
Many will suggest watching this episode in cinema or movie mode to reduce the processing and that's certainly worth trying. These technologies can be good and they can also be disruptive, and their effectiveness depends heavily on the source and what compromises you're happy to accept - and personal preference.
If you've never changed a single setting on your TV then some tuning is something to be considered, but it's not as simple as turning the brightness up or down. Turning up the brightness will often blow out the highlights and over expose the shadows, losing the balance of the picture. Figuring out exactly what each setting is trying to improve is more important as a customer, as turning up the brightness on this episode makes the artefacts and banding more prominent.
Some TVs have a calibration process you can go through, which is as much about setting the TV to suit your preferences and the environment that it's in than anything else. This can result in a custom picture mode that's better than the standard.
Environment too is important. For an episode like The Long Night, there's only really one way to watch it - and that's in the dark. The lower the ambient light in the room the better you can see what's happening. At the same time, if your TV has an ambient light sensor you might want to consider turning that off too - as it will then darkness the image again.
Finally, if you have the option to download the episode, you'll get more data than streaming - and remove the effect of variable bitrates - for a better viewing experience.