In Windows shared libraries are always looked up in directories that are in the current PATH. The only way to make the dynamic linker look up shared libraries in other directories is to add them to the PATH before running the program. There is also a way to create a manifest file that tells the loader to look up libraries in a special place but it is always a specially named subdirectory in the same directory as the executable. You can't specify an arbitrary path in the manifest, so the libraries need to be copied there. This makes Windows development even more inconvenient because you need to either fiddle with paths, copy shared libraries around or statically link everything (which is slooooow).
If you look at Windows executables with a hex editor, you find that they behave much the same way as their unixy counterparts. Each executable contains a list of dependency libraries that it needs, such as helper.dll. Presumably what happens is that at runtime the dynamic linker will parse the exe file and pass the library names to some lookup function that finds the actual libraries given the current PATH value. This raises the obvious question: what would happen if, somehow, the executable file would have an absolute path written in it rather than just the filename?
It turns out that it works and does what you would expect it to. The backend code accepts absolute paths and resolves them to the correct file without PATH lookups. With this we have a working rpath simulacrum. It's not really workable, though, since the VS toolchain does not support writing absolute paths to dependencies in output files. Editing the result files by hand is also a bit suspicious because there are many things that depend on offsets inside the file. Adding or removing even one byte will probably break something. The only thing we can really do is to replace one string with a different one with the same length.
This turns out to be the same problem that rpath entries have on Unix and the solution is also the same. We need to get a long enough string inside the output file and then we can replace it with a different string. If the replacement string is shorter, it can be padded with null bytes because the strings are treated as C strings. I have written a simple test repository doing this, which can be downloaded from Github.
On unix rpath is specified with a command line argument so it can be padded to arbitrary size. Windows does not support this so we need to fake it. The basic idea is simple. Instead of creating a library helper.dll we create a temporary library called aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.dll and link the program against that. When viewed in a hex editor the executable looks like this.
Now we can copy the library to its real name in a subdirectory and patch the executable. The result looks like this.
The final name was shorter than what we reserved so there are a bunch of zero bytes in the executable. This program can now be run and it will always resolve to the library that we specified. When the program is installed the entry can be changed to just plain helper.dll in the same way making it indistinguishable from libraries built without this trick (apart from the few extra null bytes).
Rpath on Windows: achieved.
Is this practical?
It's hard to say. I have not tested this on anything except toy programs but it does seem to work. It's unclear if this was the intended behaviour, but Microsoft does take backwards compatibility fairly seriously so one would expect it to keep working. The bigger problem is that the VS toolchain creates many other files, such as pdb debug info files, that probably don't like being renamed like this. These files are mostly undocumented so it's difficult to estimate how much work it would take to make binary hotpatching work reliably.
The best solution would be for Microsoft to add a new linker argument to their toolchain that would write dependency info to the files as absolute paths and to provide a program to rewrite those entries as discussed above. Apple already provides all of this functionality in their core toolchain. It would be nice for MS to do the same. This would simplify cross platform development because it would make all the major platforms behave in the same way.