I mentioned this to my friend Dane: he responded with "most third person games are like that." I don't play many third-person games, but he's usually pretty reliable.
And I ask the question, why? Why, if it's a problem with so many third person games, haven't they fixed it yet? I mean, I can remember reading maybe one or two articles on camera control - something on Gamasutra about an AI for dramatic camera work, and I think there was something in GPG. But I don't even recall the basic stuff - you know, how to handle the camera being pushed into a wall, how to deal with small spaces, how to make sure that the player is actually kept visible on the bloody screen in the middle of a fight against four or five pretty strong enemies... (GRAAAAGH)
Perhaps I'm being over-optimistic in assuming that the problem has neat solutions and we just need to find them. But when there's so little published work out there, I can only assume it's a problem that nobody's dedicated any time to.
Just to be sure it's not my thin reading... Mmm. GDNet has five or so articles in response to my search for "camera," and all are the more low-level things - how to build a camera around quaternions, how to build a camera class, etc... Gamasutra has three articles, it looks like, only one of which seems to address what I'm talking about - the other two are all about achieving dramatic camera angles and the like through AI. Now I like drama as much as the next guy who loves drama, but please, I'll be content if I can just play the bloody game!
A camera controller has two aims:
1) Make it as easy as possible for the player to play the game (i.e. that they're fighting the AI creatures rather than the interface)
2) Make the game look good
It's tempting to boil that down to gameplay vs graphics, but let's not go there. Instead, I'm thinking it might be possible to derive from each aim a number of rules - for instance, "the player's model must always be visible," or, "the camera must not violently switch angles." (Or at least, if it does, don't cause the camera-relative movement keys to suddenly switch direction. Or, oh yeah, DON'T FORCE PC PLAYERS TO USE CAMERA-RELATIVE MOVEMENT MODES. We're playing with a D-Pad here, guys, we don't have the fine control of an analog stick. Give us player-relative modes, for god's sake). Once you've got those rules, you can begin to take a given game state, eliminate certain volumes, promote others, until you can pick a result. Add things like temporal coherence into the mix and you may just have a decent system on your hands.
In all fairness, Prince of Persia *does* have a first-person mode, but you can't move around while you're using it. It's good for the platforming sections, but you'd never want to use it in the middle of a fight.