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Is it possible for me to just copy a codec file into a directory without having to install some janky codec pack filled with all kinds of nonsense? I just want to be able to play MKV files without running some type of installation executable.

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this is not possible without installing a correct codec. You can use a portable media player like this one:

if you don't want to install anything.

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Instead of using a bloated and non-native portable application, I'd suggest using MPC-HC Lite. The project is updated every 2 days and is always available as an installer or a .zip package (portable). And to support the MKV container and it's video stream, you only need LAV Filters. The lite version comes with no codecs. Cleanest player there is. Everything is portable.

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MKV is a container, not an encoding format. Since it could be many different encoding formats inside the MKV, that's usually why people (in general) suggest installing a CODEC pack to get MKV support.

Perhaps check out this related SU question: which codec inside mkv file?..

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