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Tech by VICE

Is ‘Game of Thrones’ Too Dark, or Does Your Screen Suck?

You’re right, something was wrong with the picture on ‘Game of Thrones’ last night.

by Matthew Gault
Apr 29 2019, 8:20pm

Image: HBO

I take Game of Thrones too seriously, so I have a ritual for watching it. I close all the curtains and turn down all the lights to reduce glare. It’s a story I’ve been watching—and reading—unfold for 15 years, and I want the picture as clear as possible.

Yet, during Sunday night’s epic Battle of Winterfell, I often found myself squinting at the screen. Odd artifacts splashed across the darkness while Arya moved through the libraries of Winterfell. Often, the picture wasn’t clear and I had no idea what the hell was going on. I’m not the only one. Lots of people had problems seeing what was happening during one of the most hyped moments in recent television history because it was too dark.

“There were not issues across any of HBO’s platforms,” a representative from HBO told me when I reached out via email. But something happened. We all felt it, and tweeted our frustrated attempts to adjust our TV sets to compensate for the dark visuals.

Some of the visibility issues were probably conscious design choices. The episode, called “The Long Night,” takes place in the dead of night during a blizzard. Heavy fires are tossing ashes into the air. It’s meant to be dark, and lighting a dark scene in a way that makes things easy to see is hard to do while maintaining a naturalistic look. Last night, many shots were lit by the torches and fires within the scene, as opposed to flood lights and giant LEDs.

If the effect was too dark or muddy to parse visually, it's probably partly because of your TV.

“I’ve seen a lot of complaints about this,” James Willcox, senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports, told me in an email. “One reason is that most TVs are LCD sets that have a tough time producing very deep blacks, due to the backlights. The shows are being mastered on expensive monitors, probably an OLED monitor where the black details are more obvious.”

The problem is that OLED TVs cost thousands of dollars, and so most people are watching the show on LCD sets, which tend to wash out deep blacks. The entire Battle of Winterfell took place in darkness and people with older, or more affordable TVs may have lost details as the backlighting washed away the carefully-lit images.

Even so, a fancy TV likely didn’t help, whether you streamed the episode or watched it via cable.

I’ve got a fancy QLED TV from Samsung, which handles blacks really well. I watch Game of Thrones live through the HBO app, and the blacks in last night’s episode were full of graphical artifacting—sometimes the image would blur or get fuzzy, other times I saw hard lines in the shadows themselves, which obscured the images.

“I think the issue is either with HBO or the TV providers delivering the signal,” Willcox said. “It's uniformly bad across both streaming and pay TV. We started noticing it during dark scenes last week, but it was even worse this week due to the amount of very dark scenes in the episode. Not only is the show losing black detail—so you can't make out what's happening with dark scenes—but we're also seeing compression artifacts and a significant amount of false contouring, also called banding.”

On my set, the color banding—a kind of visual artifact where the line of delineation along a color gradient becomes pronounced and noticeable—was bad. As Arya wandered through Winterfell, it looked as if a halo of darkness radiated off of her. As the Night King raised the fallen, my screen got fuzzy, as if it had lost resolution.

Willcox said that Consumer Reports has heard complaints about the last two episodes from a wide range of sources and cable providers.

“So either HBO is screwing up the encoding of the show, or there's not sufficient bandwidth to transmit the show without losing the bit detail in darker images,” he said. “You don't really notice it as much in brighter scenes. I was able to watch it on an OLED TV, which does a better job with blacks, and even on these sets the issue remains. It's not the TV technology.”

According to Wilcox, streaming online is even worse. “One downfall to streaming are live events when everyone wants to watch the same thing at the same time; a lot of pressure both on internet connections and the hosting company's servers,” Willcox said.

There might be something to this. This morning, I loaded up " The Long Night" and watched it directly through HBO’s app and through Amazon. I watched bits of the episode on my television, my phone, and It’s still a dark episode, but much of the compression issues and artifacting seemed to have cleared up compared to last night’s viewing. Even on my phone, in my office, with the windows up in the middle of the day, Game of Thrones looked better.

"The Long Night" was dark and full of terrors, and I wanted to see all of them. It looks like I will, this next time around. But we’ve still got three episodes to go before Game of Thrones is over. I hope the next three stream better than last night's.