Last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” was a wild ride and inarguably one of an epic show’s more epic moments — if you could see it through the dark and the blotchy video. It turns out even one of the most expensive and meticulously produced shows in history can fall prey to the scourge of low quality streaming and bad TV settings. The good news is this episode is going to look amazing on Blu-ray or potentially in future, better streams and downloads. The bad news is that millions of people already had to see it in a way its creators surely lament. You deserve to know why this was the case. I’ll be simplifying a bit here because this topic is immensely complex, but here’s what you should know. (By the way, I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, but I’ll try to stay away from anything significant in words or images.) It was clear from the opening shots in last night’s episode, “The Longest Night,” that this was going to be a dark one. The army of the dead faces off against the allied living forces in the darkness, made darker by a bespoke storm brought in by, shall we say, a Mr. N.K., to further demoralize the good guys. If you squint you can just make out the largest army ever assembled Thematically and cinematographically, setting this chaotic, sprawling battle at night is a powerful creative choice and a valid one, and I don’t question the showrunners, director, and so on for it. But technically speaking, setting this battle at night, and in fog, is just about the absolute worst case scenario for the medium this show is native to: streaming home video. Here’s why. Compression factor Video has to be compressed in order to be sent efficiently over the internet, and although we’ve made enormous strides in video compression and the bandwidth available to most homes, there are still fundamental limits. The master video that HBO put together from the actual footage, FX, and color work that goes into making a piece of modern media would be huge: hundreds of gigabytes if not terabytes. That’s because the master has to include all the information on every pixel in every frame, no exceptions. Imagine if you tried to “stream” a terabyte-sized TV episode. You’d have to be able to download upwards of 200 megabytes per second for the full 80 minutes of this one. Few people in the world have that kind of connection — it would basically never stop buffering. Even 20 megabytes per second is asking too much by a long shot. 2 is doable — slightly under the 25 megabit speed (that’s bits… divide by 8 to get bytes) we use to define broadband download speeds. So how do you turn a large file into a small one? Compression — we’ve been doing it for a long time, and video, though different from other types of data in some ways, is still just a bunch of zeroes and ones. In fact it’s especially susceptible to strong compression because of how one video frame is usually very similar to the last and the next one. There are all kinds of shortcuts you can take that reduce the file size immensely without noticeably impacting the quality of the video. These compression and decompression techniques fit into a system called a “codec.” But there are exceptions to that, and one of them has to do with how compression handles color and brightness. Basically, when the image is very dark, it can’t display color very well. The color of winter Think about it like this: There are only so many ways to describe colors in a few words. If you have one word you can say red, or maybe ochre or vermilion depending on your interlocutor’s vocabulary. But if you have two words you can say dark red, darker red, reddish black, and so on. The codec has a limited vocabulary as well, though its “words” are the numbers of bits it can use to describe a pixel. This lets it succinctly describe a huge array of colors with very little data by saying, this pixel has this bit value of color, this much brightness, and so on. (I didn’t originally want to get into this, but this is what people are talking about when they say bit depth, or even “highest quality pixels.) But this also means that there are only so many gradations of color and brightness it can show. Going from a very dark grey to a slightly lighter grey, it might be able to pick 5 intermediate shades. That’s perfectly fine if it’s just on the hem of a dress in the corner of the image. But what if the whole image is limited to that small selection of shades? Then you get what we see last night. See how Jon (I think) is made up almost entirely of only a handful of different colors (brightnesses of a similar color, really) in with big obvious borders between them? This issue is called “banding,” and it’s hard not to notice once you see how it works. Images on video can be incredibly detailed, but places where there are subtle changes in color — often a clear sky or some other large but mild gradient — will exhibit large stripes as the codec goes from “darkest dark blue” to “darker dark blue” to “dark blue,” with no “darker darker dark blue” in between. Check out this image. Above is a smooth gradient encoded with high color depth. Below that is the same gradient encoded with lossy JPEG encoding — different from what HBO used, obviously, but you get the idea. Banding has plagued streaming video forever, and it’s hard to avoid even in major productions — it’s just a side effect of representing color digitally. It’s especially distracting because obviously our eyes don’t have that limitation. A high-definition screen may actually show more detail than your eyes can discern from couch distance, but color issues? Our visual systems flag them like crazy. You can minimize it, but it’s always going to be there, until the point when we have as many shades of grey as we have pixels on the screen. So back to last night’s episode. Practically the entire show took place at night, which removes about 3/4 of the codec’s brightness-color combos right there. It also wasn’t a particularly colorful episode, a directorial or photographic choice that highlighted things like flames and blood, but further limited the ability to digitally represent what was on screen. It wouldn’t be too bad if the background was black and people were lit well so they popped out, though. The last straw was the introduction of the cloud, fog, or blizzard, whatever you want to call it. This kept the brightness of the background just high enough that the codec had to represent it with one of its handful of dark greys, and the subtle movements of fog and smoke came out as blotchy messes (often called “compression artifacts” as well) as the compression desperately tried to pick what shade was best for a group of pixels. Just brightening it doesn’t fix things, either — because the detail is already crushed into a narrow range of values, you just get a bandy image that never gets completely black, making it look washed out, as you see here: (Anyway, the darkness is a stylistic choice. You may not agree with it, but that’s how it’s supposed to look and messing with it beyond making the darkest details visible could be counterproductive.) Now, it should be said that compression doesn’t have to be this bad. For one thing, the more data it is allowed to use, the more gradations it can describe, and the less severe the banding. It’s also possible (though I’m not sure where it’s actually done) to repurpose the rest of the codec’s “vocabulary” to describe a scene where its other color options are limited. That way the full bandwidth can be used to describe a nearly monochromatic scene even though strictly speaking it should be only using a fraction of it. But neither of these are likely an option for HBO: Increasing the bandwidth of the stream is costly, since this is being sent out to tens of millions of people — a bitrate increase big enough to change the quality would also massively swell their data costs. When you’re distributing to that many people, that also introduces the risk of hated buffering or errors in playback, which are obviously a big no-no. It’s even possible that HBO lowered the bitrate because of network limitations — “Game of Thrones” really is on the frontier of digital distribution. And using an exotic codec might not be possible because only commonly used commercial ones are really capable of being applied at scale. Kind of like how we try to use standard parts for cars and computers. This episode almost certainly looked fantastic in the mastering room and FX studios, where they not only had carefully calibrated monitors with which to view it but also were working with brighter footage (it would be darkened to taste by the colorist) and less or no compression. They might not even have seen the “final” version that fans “enjoyed.” We’ll see the better copy eventually, but in the meantime the choice of darkness, fog, and furious action meant the episode was going to be a muddy, glitchy mess on home TVs. And while we’re on the topic… You mean it’s not my TV? Well… to be honest, it might be that too. What I can tell you is that simply having a “better” TV by specs, such as 4K or a higher refresh rate or whatever, would make almost no difference in this case. Even built-in de-noising and de-banding algorithms would be hard pressed to make sense of “The Long Night.” And one of the best new display technologies, OLED, might even make it look worse! Its “true blacks” are much darker than an LCD’s backlit blacks, so the jump to the darkest grey could be way more jarring. That said, it’s certainly possible that your TV is also set up poorly. Those of us sensitive to this kind of thing spend forever fiddling with settings and getting everything just right for exactly this kind of situation. There are dozens of us! Now who’s “wasting his time” calibrating his TV? — John Siracusa (@siracusa) Usually “calibration” is actually a pretty simple process of making sure your TV isn’t on the absolute worst settings, which unfortunately many are out of the box. Here’s a very basic three-point guide to “calibrating” your TV: Go through the “picture” or “video” menu and turn off anything with a special name, like “TrueMotion,” “Dynamic motion,” “Cinema mode,” or anything like that. Most of these make things look worse, especially anything that “smooths” motion. Turn those off first and never ever turn them on again. Don’t mess with brightness, gamma, color space, anything you have to turn up or down from 50 or whatever. Figure out lighting by putting on a good, well-shot movie in the situation you usually watch stuff — at night maybe, with the hall light on or whatever. While the movie is playing, click through any color presets your TV has. These are often things like “natural,” “game,” “cinema,” “calibrated,” and so on and take effect right away. Some may make the image look too green, or too dark, or whatever. Play around with it and whichever makes it look best, use that one. You can always switch later – I myself switch between a lighter and darker scheme depending on time of day and content. Don’t worry about HDR, dynamic lighting, and all that stuff for now. There’s a lot of hype about these technologies and they are still in their infancy. Few will work out of the box and the gains may or may not be worth it. The truth is a well shot movie from the ’60s or ’70s can look just as good today as a “high dynamic range” show shot on the latest 8K digital cinema rig. Just focus on making sure the image isn’t being actively interfered with by your TV and you’ll be fine. Unfortunately none of these things will make “The Long Night” look any better until HBO releases a new version of it. Those ugly bands and artifacts are baked right in. But if you have to blame anyone, blame the streaming infrastructure that wasn’t prepared for a show taking risks in its presentation, risks I would characterize as bold and well executed, unlike the writing in the show lately. Oops, sorry, couldn’t help myself. If you really want to experience this show the way it was intended, the fanciest TV in the world wouldn’t have helped last night, though when the Blu-ray comes out you’ll be in for a treat. But here’s hoping the next big battle takes place in broad daylight.
Here’s my history with Magic: The Gathering: I played it compulsively about 20 years ago, until I ran into That Guy, who had narrowed the total focus of his life down to building intricate lawnmower decks that would destroy other players four to six at a time. I decided I’d met my match and focused my addictive tendencies elsewhere. The last cards I bought, I think, were from the Unglued set, although I think I still have my old green-red Saproling deck somewhere. I’m only bringing this up to establish my bona fides. This is a preview from a returning player, rather than a current expert. Thus, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I redeemed a beta code for Wizards of the Coast’s new free-to-play version of the card game, Arena. The idea, they explained via press releases and blog posts, was to convey the experience of the card game as closely as possible via a computer, complete with a collection element, regular tournaments, and much of the original art. This isn’t a new idea — Arena is the 15th video game based on Magic, and depending on how you count it, the third or the seventh to attempt to replicate the feel of the actual card game, rather than some other genre hung vaguely on the fiction — but Arena’s free-to-play business model sets it apart. The simple, too-long-didn’t-read analysis of Magic: The Gathering – Arena is that it’s an online client and storefront for Magic, warts and all, as the game currently exists. You can pick it up and play for free against anonymous online opponents, and as long as you have the required tactical mind, patience, and high frustration threshold to enjoy Magic, this is likely a cheap method of entry. I could also see it as being an easy gateway into, or back into, the card game, since the way Arena can communicate information at a glance makes it easy to learn about all the new mechanics that have been introduced in the last few expansions. Even in this version, I can already feel the addiction kicking back in, which is a good sign for the game, but troubling for me. Noticeable improvements When I first got a beta code earlier this year, the game was in a much rougher state, and I found myself with no real idea how to play. I recently logged back in following the beta’s first big stress test, on July 20th, and the game’s come a long way. Arena is now streamlined, surprisingly responsive, and most crucially, begins with a short tutorial showing newcomers and returning players how Magic works in 2018. There are still a lot of common abilities that are brand-new to me — , , , this thing where I earn “the city’s blessing,” legendary cards that have four different potential abilities — but most of it gets helpfully defined simply by right-clicking on a card. I don’t know how well I’d be doing if I had no Magic background whatsoever, but I found myself back up and running within a surprisingly short period of time, especially given how much trouble I had with earlier versions of the same client. Magic is the same game at heart that it’s been for more than twenty years: players begin by drawing up to seven cards. Land cards are used to generate a resource called mana; mana is spent to fuel other cards, such as summoned creatures, enchantments, or spells that inflict direct damage. The object is to reduce your opponent’s health to zero, by breaking through their defenses one way or the other. Each player builds their deck ahead of time in order to construct or supplement an intended winning strategy, which is at least half of the game. As the game has progressed through multiple expansions, rule clarifications, tournaments, and editions, a lot of new rules, cards, and special abilities have been introduced; one of the hardest things to grasp about Magic, in my experience, has always been the fact that just about any rule you care to name can be deliberately ignored or circumvented by using the right cards at the right time. (I always imagine it like being what you’d get if chess had certain edge cases where rooks could fly, bishops could teleport, or for a second, pawns were driving tanks.) Since the game is built around several thousand collectible cards, and almost every card has some additional unique ability to it one way or the other, it creates an endlessly manipulable, constantly surprising experience. Arena is about as close to the actual game as it could be, with no particular fiction surrounding it. You can pick an avatar from a selection of the game’s established characters, such as , , or (so is somebody actually going to cast Idris Elba as Teferi, or…?), but there’s no attempt to depict you as a newbie planeswalker or something, aside from some slight interactions with named characters during the tutorial. You’re just a player with a deck, up against other players with decks. You never see more of another player than a username and rank, and can only communicate via a few pre-programmed, non-verbal emotes. It’s an endless array of anonymous Magic opponents. It’s strange that there doesn’t seem to be any attached social network, or the ability to rematch an opponent; no attempt has been made to attach even a bare-bones sort of social network to it. If the game features the ability to deliberately seek out and play games against your friends, there isn’t even a placeholder for it in the current build, and that’s a puzzling omission. That being said, I was surprised by how fast and fluid Arena has become. You can jump in and be playing Magic against a human opponent within a minute or so of launching the client, you can use any of several included pre-constructed decks for free, and I never had to wait more than a few seconds for a game. There are occasional irritating, unpredictable moments of lag, typically when you’re trying to play a card that affects both players or multiple other cards, but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. Same flaws as the card game What flaws there are with Arena are, fittingly, the same flaws you can identify with Magic: The Gathering. Unless you’re using some stripped-down race car engine of a deck, most games are won or lost in the first few hands, depending on which player managed to get the starting elements of one or more strategies. That opening hand can doom or save you, and a lot of the time, even when I win, I feel like it was only because my opponent got an opening hand full of nonsense. You can take a mulligan and re-draw your first cards, but every time you do, your hand gets one card smaller, which encourages you not to bother unless you’re seriously screwed over. Granted, there are practically zero penalties for losing, so there’s no reason not to just concede and hope for better luck next time, but that random element seems to end most games before they can even start. Naturally, the other problem with Magic is that, naturally, it’s a collectible card game, so the players who can afford to burn more money on it also tend to have better cards, especially if they’re doing things like picking up entire unopened cases. At time of writing, however, that isn’t quite as much of an issue with Arena. You get a lot of cards in your library just for logging on. As you achieve minor weekly quests, such as inflicting X amount of damage or casting X number of spells of a certain color, you earn in-game gold that can be spent on slowly acquiring more booster packs, which you can open to earn a handful of randomly-generated cards. You also receive a set number of “wildcards” of various rarities, which can be redeemed to purchase specific cards, and you seem to be able to get more by accomplishing some of the game’s weekly objectives. If you want to throw real money at Arena, you can buy gems, which are spent to buy larger numbers of booster packs at once, but all you really get for your cash is immediacy and convenience. There are a couple of genuinely fun pre-constructed decks in the rotation, and the game throws cards and gold at you for every little random accomplishment, so I could see a lot of Arena players having a perfectly successful run with the game without ever sinking a real dollar into it. On the other hand, once this turns into a full-fledged e-sport (I wonder what other highly competitive, tournament-friendly games are going to end up with new installments thanks to e-sports? are we going to see some kind of card-game gold rush? did anyone ever make a video game out of ?), I can see a lot of people with impulse-control problems sinking a lot of money into gems in order to “grind” for the next big killer deck. Which is probably its entire planned business model, come to think.