For many viewers tuning into Game of Thrones last night, what was supposed to be one of the show’s most remarkable and momentous scenes ever was marred by, well, darkness. The Battle of Winterfell, playing out in the season 8 episode “The Long Night,” took an arduous 55 nights to shoot, and was the largest-scale battle sequence in Thrones history. It was meant to be a final-season flex of epic proportions.
But Miguel Sapochnik’s close-up directing choices and the battle’s nighttime setting were a perfect combination to expose the weaknesses of the streaming world we live in today. Many fans took to Twitter to complain about constant pixelation and an extreme difficulty following what was transpiring on-screen. A dozen variations on “who died on Game of Thrones?” surfaced as the top internet searches of last night and this morning, as viewers tried to make sense of the visually muddy action. Jokes and memes abounded.
Why’d it look so bad? Well, there’s no getting around dark things being difficult to see, but the main added issue here is compression. By the time Game of Thrones reaches your TV or mobile device each Sunday night, it has been thoroughly compressed — both by HBO and by your cable / satellite / streaming provider of choice. This is a necessity to make the show accessible to a wide range of people with different internet connection speeds. Compression is also applied on the fly for everyone tuning in over cable, where the downsides can be more severe and noticeable:
Here are some ways you can try addressing the problem:
- Find the best-quality stream
Video bandwidth is king when finding the best stream or download of a TV show. You want the show delivered to your device at the highest-possible quality. No cable or streaming box will be able to fix up a noisy, pixelated video stream if that's the source material it’s given from the start.
I’ve seen reports that Amazon, which sells HBO service for $15 per month through Prime Video, tends to stream Game of Thrones at around 10Mbps, while HBO Now and HBO Go output the show at closer to 5Mbps. That difference might seem small, but it’s significant. Amazon’s version of Game of Thrones is less likely to show distracting pixelation or macro-blocking. I’ve asked both companies for specifics around their Game of Thrones presentation. But there’s a consensus among cord-cutting nerds on Reddit that Amazon is tops right now.
Apple has also promised best-in-class video presentation for its upcoming Apple TV Channels, which will include HBO. Unfortunately, those aren’t slated to be available until sometime in May, at which point the company will have already missed several Game of Thrones episodes — possibly the entire rest of the season.
In general, HBO is badly lagging behind Netflix when it comes to presentation. One of these companies is delivering many shows in 4K HDR, and the other is struggling to make a 1080p video stream look satisfactory on your living room television.
For most shows, the issues aren’t so glaring. But with Game of Thrones running such a dimly lit sequence for such a large percentage of the episode, it was hard to ignore the obvious compression and lackluster quality that struck throughout the Battle of Winterfell.
- Check your TV’s brightness settings
The default picture mode of many TVs shipping today is often too bright and hard on the eyes. Your natural inclination might be to drop the brightness down so the darks look blacker and less gray. But that will only make things harder to discern, since you’ll be losing detail in shadows as you drop that brightness slider down. If your TV has a movie, cinema, or calibrated mode, this is likely the best option for Game of Thrones, as it should limit brightness while preserving things that can be harder to make out on-screen.
- Bump up the backlight level
Maybe you care more about seeing what the hell is happening than the realism of an evening battle being pitch black. In that case, you should adjust the backlight of your LCD TV to a higher level to bring up anything that’s tough to make out. You can always lower it back down for scenes with normal lighting.
- Turn off nearby lights
It’s rare that you're going to see extended scenes that are as unforgivingly dark as the Battle of Winterfell, but when you do, pull out all the stops. Turn off nearby lamps or any other light sources that might cause reflections or a flat external glare on your TV screen. It’s likely that you already do this ritual come Sunday nights, but if you don’t, give it a shot for your rewatch of this week’s episode.
- Go OLED
OLED TVs from LG and Sony can achieve perfect blacks, since each pixel is self-illuminating; LCD TVs have backlights that light up larger sections of the panel, which can make dark scenes a little hazy and overly gray.
That said, while OLEDs excel at black level and contrast, they sometimes tend to crush details in dark scenes like Winterfell’s huge battle — especially if your TV hasn't been calibrated.
- There are a lot of factors that impact all this, and you don’t have control over all of them
Is anyone at your place using the internet for gaming or streaming while you’re watching Game of Thrones? That will limit how much of your internet bandwidth can be dedicated to the show. Also keep in mind that HBO is under a serious resource crunch when streaming each week’s new episode live as it happens. Streaming episodes on HBO Now might look significantly better the next day, when fewer people are trying to stream at the same time.
- Just buy it on Blu-ray later on if you need perfect visuals
When you buy Game of Thrones on Blu-ray, HBO can take advantage of all that storage space on each disc and go easier on the lossy video compression — with no pixelation or ugly artifacting to speak of. For some people, the quick-moving scenes in “The Long Night” got bad enough that it almost felt like they were watching a GIF, but that’s not a worry with home media.
That said, Blu-ray is totally irrelevant if you’re trying to watch this final season of Game of Thrones as it airs week to week.
I’d like to think that HBO tests streaming on a range of TVs — in the same way that music engineers often take rides in old cars to make sure their audio mastering holds up in different environments. If there’s not a wall filled with $500 Roku TVs mixed with pricey OLEDs somewhere at HBO HQ, maybe last night’s uproar will warrant just that.
And hopefully the upcoming war for the Iron Throne will happen in daylight.