I think Wolfenstein: The New Order (which I’m currently in the middle of) provides a sort of blueprint for games trying to handle extreme violence, because I’m constantly surprised by a) how cathartic and unwilling to compromise on the ultra-violent aspects of shooters that it is while b) still treating its characters’ trauma and its post-WWII Nazi Germany setting with gravity and respect.
For me the key is that it’s extremely good at making BJ and the resistance seem believably powerless. In particular the early scene on the train with Frau Engel comes to mind, but even beyond that, there’s this constant sense of being a gnat about to go to war with a windshield that follows you throughout every massive gun battle and never quite lets up. The game paces itself and uses contrast really well—those massive gun battles are usually broken up with sequences in the resistance HQ that serve to give the narrative space to grow and characterize all of the game’s characters—and it never lets the player settle into a fast-paced rhythm the way something like say, DOOM does.
And as someone who has studied some trauma theory and in doing so read a fair amount of Holocaust literature (both the realistic and more fantastical varieties), I thought its concentration camp level managed to walk this very fine line between depictions of suffering that made me physically ill and an escape/rescue sequence that borders on wish-fulfillment. Because the game believably characterizes BJ as a traumatized soldier (the “Nightmare” levels in particular seem like innocuous easter eggs but gain some real narrative heft if you start looking through a Freudian lens), the shooting seems like an attempt to escape that trauma, which only entrenches him farther and farther down.
So I guess that’s a long way of saying that, for me, the difference between glorifying violence and condoning it is by putting brakes on the power fantasy (or, on the flip-side, by detaching it entirely from our world the way something like DOOM does; I don’t think killing demons in gruesome ways particularly desensitizes us to real-world violence). If the violence is happening in a world at least recognizable as our own, it needs to have a narrative purpose—to come from somewhere and not just be the standard modern-warfare-shooter construct of “here are bad people, shoot them.”